If the Colorado Avalanche are going to advance to the Stanley Cup final, they needed their goaltending to find a way to shut out two of the best players in the world on a nightly basis.
Darcy Kuemper hadn't had a busy playoffs up until Tuesday, facing 30-plus shots just three times, all against St. Louis. Over his first nine games, his advanced stats were very mid-pack compared to the rest of the league's goaltenders, sitting with a .917 save percentage and minus-0.95 goals saved above average at 5-on-5 -- with both stats being slightly below 40-year-old Mike Smith.
So, Kuemper was going to need to step it up in Game 1. Of course, all hell broke loose, with the Avalanche winning 8-6. Kuemper allowed three goals on 13 shots, but the big story was that he was pulled with an apparent upper-body injury at 27:19.
And now, the Avalanche find themselves in a waiting game. Coach Jared Bednar was mum about Kuemper's health after Game 1, leaving more questions than answers on Colorado's off day.
Essentially, goaltending was Colorado's weak spot during the regular season -- not weak to an extent that it was hurting them, but it was definitely the least bulletproof position. Kuemper has a history of injury concerns, missing time twice during the regular season and getting pulled from a game against Nashville after taking a stick to the face.
If Kuemper can't play, that puts the onus on Pavel Francouz to steal a couple of wins along the way. Luckily, the Avalanche can trust him. In 57 NHL regular season games, Francouz has a 36-14-5 record over five seasons with a strong .921 save percentage. After missing all of 2020-21 due to an injury, Francouz bounced back with a 15-5-1 record this season and won his only start of the playoffs so far.
Still, the Western Conference final is a tough time to bring in an essentially cold goaltender, and we saw that in the second half of Game 1. Francouz doesn't have much starting experience, but the Avalanche at least play well in front of him.
To be clear, we don't know Kuemper's situation right now. He could be back for Game 2 for all we know. But if Francouz is called upon, he needs to be good, because despite winning Game 1, that was far from an ideal game for the Avalanche. As coach Jay Woodcroft mentioned four times during his media conference, the Oilers beat the Avs' duo six times. The Mike Smith/Mikko Koskinen combo did worse, but it's not like Kuemper or Francouz did themselves many favors.
And in Francouz's defense, getting thrust into a game when your starting goalie suddenly leaves due to injury without much warning is tough, especially in a game wide-open like that one. You can only expect a much tighter Game 2, regardless of who's in Colorado's crease.
Coach Jared Bednar said he has faith in Francouz, and if that's the road they have to take, they better hope he can handle the load. This is big boy time now, and the Avalanche -- who, yes, lead this series -- don't have a lot of leeway. If Francouz has to take over, you're asking him to steal wins against Connor Freaking McDavid and Leon Flippin' Draisaitl. No matter who you are, you're mostly along for the ride -- ask Vezina Trophy finalist Jacob Markstrom about that.
Francouz manned the crease when Philipp Grubauer went down with an injury three years ago and looked fine before eventually getting hurt himself and leaving Michael Hutchinson to deal with the Dallas Stars. The Avs lost that series and Dallas went on to the Stanley Cup final with a defensively dominant lineup. This time, they're playing a high-flying Oilers group with two of the best players in the world -- and Evander Kane, who scores more than a grandma at a bingo table -- and facing the toughest challenge they've had to deal with to this point.
Regardless of who starts Game 2, Colorado needs the better goaltending in this series. The Avs feel comfortable with what they have, whoever it ends up being. Let's see if that faith pays off.