If the Colorado Avalanche -- the team that finished second behind Florida in the regular season standings -- is to beat Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and potentially Brayden Point, they'll need to have the best goaltender in the series.
Great, except that means beating Andrei Vasilevskiy -- one of the best goaltenders in the world -- with either a recently recovered starting goalie in Darcy Kuemper or a career backup in Pavel Francouz.
So, you can see the dilemma here.
If you haven't followed along closely, Darcy Kuemper was Colorado's starting goalie this year but missed the final game of the first round after taking a stick to the face. He returned against St. Louis and played well before stopping a few shots up high in Game 1 against Edmonton and missing the remainder of the series. In both cases, Francouz came in and looked good in relief, winning all of his games so far during the playoffs.
Kuemper is back, and while Francouz got the job done against Edmonton, you'd have to assume they go back to Kuemper for Game 1. At 5-on-5, Francouz's save percentage was .907 with a minus-0.52 goals saved above average. For comparison, Vasilevskiy had a .932 SP and 2.48 GSAA, just slightly behind Igor Shesterkin in both categories.
Francouz was good when he needed to be against two of the best players in the world. But against Vasilevskiy and Tampa, you need to put your best foot forward, and a healthy Kuemper is the way to go. Kuemper's playoff stats aren't great either, but he's still the best shot the team has of forcing Tampa to play from behind. Of the 29 goaltenders with at least 40 regular season games played, Kuemper's .928 SP and 16.70 GSAA were good for fifth in both categories.
The Avs didn't need spectacular goaltending to advance to the final, while Tampa -- the two-time defending champions -- needed Vasilevskiy to outduel Jack Campbell, Sergei Bobrovsky and Igor Shesterkin, three top goalies in their own right. And he did, and most expect him to do it again in this series.
In Kuemper's case, he hasn't played in over two weeks, so you're asking a lot out of him in Game 1. The Avalanche at least have a reliable backup option in Francouz, and he'll be motivated big-time after a great opening round, but it should be Kuemper's net because he gives the team its best chance of winning.
Kuemper has always been viewed as a calm, collected goaltender. Even with all the time off and being forced to watch his partner take over his net, he remained focused and prepared for the biggest challenge, his first Stanley Cup appearance.
"I have lots of confidence in myself, all you can do is not listen (to outsiders) and play your game, trust your game, have confidence and do what you can to help your team," Kuemper said.
"It was super hard watching, but it made it a lot easier with how much success we had. Frankie came in and played unbelievably and we were able to win four straight, so that made it a little bit easier to be on the sideline."
The team has confidence in Kuemper, especially coach Jared Bednar. If he believes he's ready, he'll get the call and get the job done. If not, they can rely on Francouz. That's a good problem to have.
Early in the season, some questioned if the Avalanche could ride Kuemper to a Stanley Cup. By early spring, some wondered if he could be a true Vezina finalist. If there has ever been a time for him to step up, it's against a Lightning team that has been through it all and know better than anyone how to win. Kuemper is a UFA, and his future in Colorado is far from certain. A Cup would could help his value, that's for sure.
Kuemper has never been this far, and his playoffs have been a bit abbreviated -- both due to injury and because of Colorado's utter dominance in the west with just two losses against St. Louis. But Kuemper is no stranger to being the best player on the ice, proving it with a tremendous late-stage run to gold with Canada at the 2021 World Championship and other fantastic runs with Minnesota and Arizona, playing well above his team's capabilities.
There has never been a better time for Kuemper to do that all again.