Analysis: Stanley Cup Final hinges on goaltending contrast

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Backup goaltender Brian Elliott didn’t flinch while sitting on the bench, perhaps because he knew what was going through coach Jon Cooper’s head.

As the Tampa Bay Lightning were getting drubbed 7-0 by the Colorado Avalanche in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final, there was never any serious consideration about pulling reigning playoff MVP Andrei Vasilevskiy.

“Listen, this is the playoffs and we’re here to win hockey games,” Cooper said afterward, knowing at the time the chance to win that particular game had vanished long before the final horn. “Vasy gives us the best chance to win a hockey game, and he’s our guy. He’s going to be in there a couple nights. No. He’s the best goalie in the world, and we win together and we lose together.”

Two nights later, that unwavering confidence stuck out even more when Colorado coach Jared Bednar pulled Darcy Kuemper after he allowed five goals in a 6-2 loss that trimmed the Avalanche lead over the two-time defending champions to 2-1 in the best-of-seven series.

Colorado has leaned on two goaltenders all postseason, but the uncertainty about who starts Game 4 on Wednesday night — and moving forward — has emerged as the biggest question mark for the high-powered Avalanche. Their offense has never really been an issue, after all. It's all about who's in net.

This is familiar turf for Colorado, those questions in goal. Philipp Grubauer is long gone to Seattle, and general manager Joe Sakic tried to lock down the issue last summer by acquiring Kuemper in a trade with Arizona. If the problem persists, it could derail the club's hopes of closing out the series after jumping out to a 2-0 lead.

Asked what goes into his decision of Kuemper or Pavel Francouz for Game 4 Wednesday night, Bednar told reporters, “The same thing I always put into the decision” and chuckled a bit.

Bednar acknowledged Kuemper “didn’t have a good night.” Then he sounded a whole lot like Cooper, the coach with the two Stanley Cup rings in his fourth trip to the final that Bednar seems on the path to following.

“We win as a team, lose as a team,” he said. “You can group him in with everybody else. Just weren’t as good as we needed to be.”

Bednar’s choice could tip the balance of the series. Of course, Vasilevskiy has the potential to flip it in Tampa Bay’s favor, too. He was sharp in Game 3, making 37 saves after allowing seven goals for just the second time in his NHL career.

“You know he was going to bounce back and play well and he played well,” Avalanche defenseman Josh Manson said. “We still played a lot in their zone. We still had our chances.”

It may not matter if Vasilevskiy returns to the form that won him the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff’s top performer last year and the Vezina Trophy as the best goalie in the league in 2019. Game 2 was an uncharacteristic blip for a player who is becoming the face of the Lightning franchise and has every ability to steal this series, if necessary, and he has not yet even stolen a game against the Avs — when he very well could.

Kuemper or Francouz? Either is unlikely to do that. They got the Avalanche to the final with .897 and .906 save percentages, respectively, by being steady, not spectacular. They backstop a team that doesn’t give up a lot of quality chances because it plays with the puck so much and doesn’t typically let an opponent drive the play.

Game 2 was the perfect example of that. Manson called Kuemper "rock solid,” though the Avs goalie faced only 16 shots in his shutout and was rarely tested.

That changed dramatically in Game 3, and Kuemper gave up at least two goals he’d like to have back. In true hockey fashion, players blamed themselves for Kuemper getting the hook.

“It was on us, for sure,” forward Mikko Rantanen told reporters. “Three Grade A’s (chances) in the slot, so you can’t really ask for a goalie to make every save when you give chances like that.”

That's true, but the disquieting thing for Colorado is that the Avalanche are outshooting the Lightning 107-71 — including 39-32 in Game 3 — and have a blowout loss and a tight overtime win sandwiched around that 7-0 victory to show for it.

Colorado’s chances of moving one win from the Stanley Cup depends Kuemper bouncing back — or Francouz locking things down — and both are big ifs against the team that has won it all the past two years with a goalie who’s been there before.

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Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press

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