TAMPA - Had Andrew Cogliano not scored in the third period for the Colorado Avalanche, this story would have been so much different thanks to Victor Hedman.
Hedman's floater of a backhand goal in the second period somehow beat the right pad of Darcy Kuemper, who couldn't extend his leg out far enough on a goal that clearly caught him off guard.
The game was far from over at that point, but that seemed to drain the life out of the Avalanche, who failed to score to outshoot the Tampa Bay Lightning for the first time in the series -- although the Avs did make it close in overtime, where they ultimately won.
After that second-period gaffe, Kuemper was a difference-maker, and a big reason why the team will have a shot to win the Stanley Cup at home on Friday night.
What a difference two nights made. On Monday, Kuemper was pulled after allowing five goals on 22 shots in 31:11 of play. It was the second time he gave up five goals in a six-game span, and despite the Avalanche holding the advantage in most advanced statistical categories, Kuemper's play put them on the ride side of the scoresheet. Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said Kuemper didn't well enough in that game, which, yeah, everyone noticed.
Remember, for the Avs to win this series, they needed Kuemper to outplay Tampa Bay's Andrei Vasilevskiy at least a few times, and they got that out of him in Game 2, at least. Game 1 almost resulted in disaster, with Kuemper allowing three even-strength goals on 18 shots, but he shut things down when it mattered late to secure the W.
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. So while Kuemper has been prone for some stinkers -- and who isn't? -- he's mentally strong to bounce back in important games. At 5-on-5, the Lightning outshot the Avalanche 31-19 in regulation, but Kuemper played some of his best hockey of the series when it mattered in the third period. he had a huge stop on Nick Paul with the right shoulder early in overtime and
Kuemper said he and Bednar had “a good talk (on Tuesday) and he said there was no doubt I was going back in and wanted me to be loose and play my game and that’s what I tried to do. I knew the guys had my back.” And that's something Bednar has been saying through all of Kuemper's ups and downs in the playoffs, which is all you could ask for.
The Avalanche are a game from winning the Stanley Cup, and they'll need their goalie to have the game of his life at home to win the championship for the first time since 2001. It's been a dominant road for the Avalanche, who have just three losses to their credit through four rounds, and would need to lose another three to have this clutched away from them.
The odds are heavily in Colorado's favor, but it all comes down to which team gets the better goaltending. Both clubs have shown they can put a ton of pucks on net, but the netminder that stands on his head the best will be the one that comes out on top.