DENVER –.You can be sure that Darcy Kuemper has heard all of the chatter about how he’s the second best goalie in this Stanley Cup final.
As much as players say they do their part to block out the outside noise, when you go up against someone with the playoff pedigree of Andrei Vasilevskiy, it’s nearly impossible not to notice.
Despite all the signs pointing to Kuemper being the starting goalie in Game 1 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the bigger question was how the Colorado Avalanche netminder would respond to the challenge of going up against the two-time defending champions after a 15-day break.
Kuemper may have been the second-best goalie on the ice on Wednesday before a raucous crowd at Ball Arena, but the gap wasn’t all that wide and he played well enough as the Avalanche earned a dramatic 4-3 victory at 1:23 of the first overtime to take a 1-0 series lead.
Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar wouldn’t confirm Kuemper as his starter following the morning skate, but general manager Joe Sakic had provided a clue the day before, declaring him fully healthy during his question-and-answer session.
And Kuemper confessed he knew the net was his well in advance.
Bednar did detail why he turned to Kuemper in the most important game his team has played this season (so far).
“Darcy has been our starter. He’s played some real good hockey for us this year,” said Bednar. “The injury kind of set us back a little bit and he was trying to play through it, and it wasn’t working out and had some complications. Darcy is a guy we leaned on heavily all year long. It’s why we relied on him to do this job. I thought he was pretty good. The goals we gave up and the chances we gave up, we made some big mistakes on. He made some big saves for us. Got us a win.”
At this stage of the season, that’s all that really matters.
Outplaying Vasilevskiy is a Herculean feat and not many have been able to do it.
Even fewer have done it after a Lightning loss.
But that is of little concern to Kuemper, who also dealt with an unfortunate eye injury during the first round against the Nashville Predators.
“He’s the best goalie in the world. I can’t worry about trying to outplay him,” said Kuemper, who conceded the playoff run hasn’t unfolded according to plan. “You know, it was an unfortunate incident in the first round. I’m glad I came out of it and everything is back to normal now, so nothing you can do about it. It’s not easy watching some of those games, but the team has been so great, that I’ve just been worried about getting myself back sharp and getting healthy.”
If Kuemper can play at or near his regular season standard, he’ll give his team a chance to win – and that’s all Bednar is asking him to do.
With much of the talk going into the series focusing on the vast edge in playoff experience, Bednar set an interesting tone following the morning skate.
“They’ve been one of the top teams in the league for the better part of a decade. Lots of experience, they know how to win, we get it,” said Bednar. “I feel like we’ve been preparing our team for this moment since Day 1 of training camp, plus the experiences we’ve gained over the last few years and I feel like our team is on an even keel right now.
“We’ve got a lot of great leaders in there, guys that have spent a lot of time in this league and been in a lot of different situations and we’ve handled them well as a group. We’re prepared and ready to go play our game. That’s the most important thing. I don’t think that we’re going to shy away from the moment. Our focus is good. And they may have more experience, but we’re here to try and prove that we’re the best team in the league, and that’s where our mindset is at.”
This expression of quiet confidence was intentional.
Yes, the Avalanche are well aware of the Lightning’s accomplishments and they respect those accomplishments. But they’re not about to be intimidated by them in this series.
Shifting the narrative has been a common theme for the Avalanche throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs and overcoming some of those heartbreaks has been an important part of the journey.
In the series opener, the Avalanche set the tone by imposing their style of play on their opponent, showing no signs of rust after a lengthy layoff and quickly reaching the warp speed level that has been evident throughout the course of the post-season.
They had plenty of zone time and forced the Lightning into numerous defensive-zone turnovers, several of which ended up in the back of the net.
By jumping out to a 2-0 lead fewer than 10 minutes into the contest, the Avalanche made Vasilievskiy look human — though he quickly regrouped and was one of the reasons the Lightning were able to stay in the game.
That’s the thing about the Lightning, if you let them hang around and don’t put them away, things can get uncomfortable — even after building a 3-1 cushion.
By allowing two goals in a span of 48 seconds – including a slippery move by Nikita Kucherov past Devon Toews followed by a perfect pass for an easy tap-in for Ondrej Palat – the Avalanche were suddenly reeling, at least momentarily.
“They don’t make it easy on you. You have to earn everything that you get,” said Avalanche captain Gabe Landeskog, who had a goal and an assist. “A resilient win.”
That’s an essential quality, especially at this time of the year.
After the Lightning turned the tables, it was natural to wonder if the Avalanche were going to unravel.
Remember the Lightning have been here before and it’s not uncommon for them to seize momentum and not look back.
But the Avalanche maintained their composure, pushing back and ultimately forcing one more example of poor puck management and that final turnover proved to be costly as J.T. Compher intercepted a pass and got it over to Valeri Nichushkin — who put it on a tee for a one-timer that Andre Burakovsky buried to end this riveting game.
Burakovsky’s playoff road has been nearly as bumpy as Kuemper’s, given his combination of two healthy scratches against the St. Louis Blues and missing two more against the Edmonton Oilers with a foot injury after blocking an Evan Bouchard shot in the Western Conference Final.
After getting moved up to the second line to start this series, there was Burakovsky playing the role of overtime hero.
“I thought he was solid. Really solid,” said Bednar. “Managed the puck really well. Didn’t have any turnovers. Checked hard. Was getting above pucks. Skating well. That’s what Burky can do. You put him in a spot and he can finish. He’s a streaky scorer, and when he gets opportunities he can put the puck in the net.”
Burakovsky attributes some of that success to his own experience as a Stanley Cup champion with the Washington Capitals in 2018.
“Maybe a little bit. I’ve been through it. I kind of know what to expect, the pace and what’s at stake here,” said Burakovsky, who still had nerves going into Game 1. “I was kind of nervous too, had a little trouble sleeping. woke up at 6 in the morning and couldn’t wait for the game.”
Nichushkin was a beast all night long and was probably the best forward in the game, finishing with six shots on goal and 11 shot attempts while chipping in a goal and an assist.
But his contributions were not limited to offence, as Nichushkin was a force when it came to winning board battles, getting in shot lanes and eating up nearly two minutes of penalty-killing time as the Avalanche were a perfect four-for-four while shorthanded.
“Huge X-factor,” said Bednar. “He’s been doing that thing for us for a couple years now. Incredible season he’s had so far. He’s been a difference maker almost every night for us. His ability to check and check pucks back to keep us playing offence. You saw it on display.
The other thing folks saw on display from the Avalanche was another strong showing from their stars.
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper referred to Avalanche centre Nathan MacKinnon as a bull in a china shop following the morning skate, referencing his ability to dominate with his combination of speed and power.
MacKinnon was a force throughout, providing an assist but also driving play with five shots on goal, 13 shot attempts and a number of glorious set-ups.
When the puck is on his stick, he’s a threat to make something happen.
Avalanche defenceman Cale Makar, one of the front-runners for the Conn Smythe Trophy, was also all over this game.
Although he didn’t get an assist on Nichushkin’s goal, it doesn’t happen without his smart pinch at the offensive blue line, forcing Palat into a turnover that landed on the stick of MacKinnon.
Makar was his poised, confident self, getting involved offensively while also locking things down in the D-zone with partner Devon Toews.
With a two-day break before Game 2 on Saturday, talk will shift to adjustments and questions about when Nazem Kadri (right thumb) and possibly Andrew Cogliano (finger) might return to the lineup.
That’s a secondary concern at this point, though both players will be welcomed back with open arms when healthy enough to do so.
The Avalanche know they didn’t see the best of the Lightning in the opener and they’ll need to find another level as the series moves along.
They also know that their fast-paced play and tenacious approach had something to do with that.