Tampa Bay Lightning shot stopper Darcy Kuemper.
And Darcy Kuemper, offensive catalyst?
After saving 37 shots in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals on Wednesday, Kuemper earned the second assist for Nazem Kadri’s overtime goal, capping his night of redemption.
After allowing five goals from 22 shots and watching the final 28 minutes from the bench in Monday’s Game 3 loss, Kuemper was rock solid save for Victor Hedman’s backhand goal in the second half. That was the only blemish on Kuemper’s scorecard as the Avalanche positioned themselves on home ice to lift the trophy on Friday night.
The Lightning had 39 shots, the most by an Avalanche opponent this postseason, including 17 shots in the first season, one more than all of Game 2 overall.
“He was great,” said teammate Nathan MacKinnon of Kuemper. “I thought even in Game 3 he was a bit unlucky with some of those goals and we hung him out to dry on a few too. (In Game 4) That was hands down the Kuemps we knew.”
MacKinnon and his teammates had no doubts, and neither did coach Jared Bednar.
Kuemper said he and Bednar “had a good chat (Tuesday) and he said there was no doubt I went back in and wanted me to be loose and play my game and I tried that. I knew the boys had my back.”
Kuemper solved Bednar’s biggest problem by not being a problem.
“Our team believes in him and I believe in him,” Bednar said.
The Lightning scored 36 seconds into the game when a shot knocked off Kuemper’s mask and hit Anthony Cirelli – completely uncovered – from the top of the crease (nine feet).
But the Avs’ focus on tightening the defense began after the opening goal. According to the Natural Stat trick, the Blitz had 13 “high danger” odds compared to 20 in Game 3.
After Cirelli’s goal, none of the Blitz’s remaining 12 shots in the first half came from within 15 feet.
In the second half, Kuemper had three key sequences: a save from a deflection from Ondrej Palat, consecutive stops on Hedman backhands (23 and 14 feet – Kuemper moved well to the other side of the net to stop the rebound) and a point – Spaces from Ross Colton after time expires.
In the third period, only one of the Lightning’s 10 shots on goal came from 40 feet — a 21-foot backhand from Hedman from a hard angle.
In overtime, which the Avalanche dominated, the Lightning’s three shots on goal came from 27 (after a Bo Byram turnover), 153, and 35 feet.
“I thought he was fighting,” Bednar said of Kuemper. “You go through our lineup, there are people who had bad games in the playoffs. It’s just so much bigger when it’s a goalie because he’s your last line of defense.”
That’s to be expected. But the first line of attack?
In the first overtime, the teams have the long exchange from their zone. The Avalanche was particularly dominant during one stretch when it held the blitz zone for 42.3 seconds. After clearing the puck across the ice, the Lightning raced to the change and recognized the opening, Kuemper, rather than settling the puck for Bo Byram to carry it around the net, threw a pass forward to Artturi Lehkonen.
“Everyone looked exhausted so I just tried to get it (the ice) up as fast as I could and hopefully take some of the rush off,” said Kuemper.
Lehkonen passed to Kadri, who scored the winner. Kuemper’s assist was the first by an Avalanche goalie in his three Stanley Cup Finals games and capped his redemption game.
“We need him to play well and we need him to make the difference,” said Andrew Cogliano. “I thought he did.”
If Kuemper does it again, he’ll be teaming up with Patrick Roy as the Avalanche Cup-winning goaltender.