Colorado Avalanche faces goaltending questions in Stanley Cup finals

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TAMPA — The Colorado Avalanche didn’t get into this Stanley Cup finals expecting to dominate the goalie battle against one of the best goalies in the world, Andrei Vasilevskiy of Tampa Bay.

The Avalanche only needed a solid goaltendership to have a real shot at their first title since 2001, and they let their veteran skaters do most of the work. However, when Colorado starting goaltender Darcy Kuemper was pulled in the second half of Game 3 after conceding five goals, questions about Colorado’s longevity in the series began to creep in.

With Colorado holding on to a 2-1 lead, the Avalanche faces a goalie controversy beginning Wednesday night in Game 4 at the Amalie Arena. Colorado coach Jared Bednar declined to name his Game 4 starter Tuesday, saying after Game 3 that they were evaluating everything on the net.

Kuemper allowed five goals from 22 shots before being replaced by Pavel Francouz, who recorded nine saves from 10 shots. Kuemper had some good close-range saves early on but couldn’t make the saves when it mattered most.

“[Kuemper] didn’t have a good night. Neither does our team,” Bednar said after Colorado’s 6-2 loss. “We win as a team, lose as a team. I’ll put him in a group with everyone else. Just wasn’t as good as we needed to be.”

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Kuemper was Colorado’s main starter for most of the season, but Francouz was solid as a backup, posting a .916 save percentage and 2.55 goals against average. And when Kuemper suffered an upper-body injury in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals against Edmonton, Francouz kept strong at the net and helped the Avalanche win four straight games.

Still, despite Francouz’s efforts, Bednar returned to Kuemper as a starter for Game 1 of the finals. Kuemper delivered in the first two games and stopped all 16 shots he faced in Colorado’s 7-0 Game 2 win.

Bednar praised Kümper’s efforts after Game 1 and his teammates are not worried about the future.

“Fully convinced [he can bounce back]said defense attorney Josh Manson. “He’s in the National Hockey League for a reason. He will fight back.”

Colorado center Nathan MacKinnon added, “It’s the Stanley Cup Finals. We’re not expecting a sweep… We knew they were too proud to walk away. We’re still comfortable. We feel completely comfortable in our team.”

On the other hand, Vasilevskiy excelled in Game 3 and regained his form after scoring all of Colorado’s seven goals in Game 2. Vasilevskiy made 37 saves in Game 3. Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said the goaltender’s composure was due to his experience and mental growth in the league.

“Every time a goal is scored, everyone looks at it and … I think the gift of his that made him great is the ability to turn the page,” Cooper said.

The burly Russian, like a fair number of Lightning players, has endured adversity before. Being in a 0-2 series hole — and being on the wrong side of a blowout game — was no stranger. Forward Nick Paul said Vasilevskiy’s determination and focus is what impresses him the most. So when he endured a tough second game in the finals, it wasn’t too worrying.

“It definitely gives us confidence there,” said Lightning defender Zach Bogosian. “He’s a special player that doesn’t come around often. So we’re very fortunate to have him and he’s been the backbone of this organization since he’s been here. It’s impressive to see.”

Injury Notes: Cooper said Tampa Bay forward Nikita Kucherov is expected to play in Game 4.

Center Brayden Point, who missed Game 3, is “highly doubtful” about playing Wednesday, according to Cooper. Point suffered a lower body injury in a Game 7 win over Toronto in the first round and did not play again until Games 1 and 2 of the Finals.

Colorado forward Andre Burakovsky, who was injured in the second half of Game 2, was yet to join the team in Tampa Tuesday afternoon, Bednar said. He was still being treated in Denver. Bednar also said avalanche center Nazem Kadri is making progress following surgery on his thumb, and he’s optimistic Kadri will be an option for Colorado at some point in the Finals.

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