The Avalanche’s 8-6 win over the Oilers in Game1 of the Western Conference finals so much was firewagon hockey, an engine from the nearby Denver Station No. 6 should have sped over from Speer Boulevard and followed a Zamboni around the ice between periods.
With a Dalmatian along for the ride.
When Wayne Gretzky — unquestionably The Great One — is musing on TNT that you have to play defense to win the Stanley Cup, that catches attention.
Except he apparently had forgotten — or didn’t want to remember — that he and the Oilers beat the Blackhawks 10-5 in Game 5 of the 1985 Western Conference finals.
That was a more decisive game, but similar.
After Nathan MacKinnon had a goal and an assist for Colorado, I noted that the Avalanche certainly didn’t want to give up six goals but asked if the frenetic pace and speed of the game lived up to what he expected … and more.
“Yeah, they’re a really dangerous team,” he said of the Oilers. “Like I said, they had depth, their depth was really good tonight. Obviously those two [Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl] did their thing as well, they looked amazing as always. But their depth was solid, and we have to do a better job with that as well. We definitely have some things to clean up, but happy that we got the win.”
In all the pre-series buildup of MacKinnon vs. McDavid, of secondary superstars Cale Makar and Draisaitl, and of more, we acknowledged but underplayed another major issue in the series: Shaky starting goaltending, from the Avalanche’s Darcy Kuemper and the Oilers’ 40-year-old Mike Smith.
That and the abundance of breathtaking talent among the skaters on both rosters was a volatile combination. For those keeping score of such things at home — or at the watch party — McDavid had a goal and two assists for the Oilers.
Smith allowed six goals on 24 shots before he was pulled in the second period, and it made you wonder if retired Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith — who was aboard seven winners in Triple Crown races — had been dispatched to the Oilers’ crease by mistake.
Kuemper allowed three goals on 16 shots before leaving the game at 7:19 of the second period. At the time, the Avalanche led 6-3. He had briefly held up the start of the second period — officially to deal with an equipment issue in the dressing room — and Pavel Francouz said after the game that he was given a bit of advance notice that he might be needed. Clearly, Kuemper had indicated he was having an issue of some sort in advance of when he actually left the game.
“I had one or two shifts to stretch in the background and get ready,” said Francouz, who came on to allow three goals on 21 shots and had his moments of shakiness, too. “I tried to put my thoughts together. I heard from the trainer to get ready.”
The Avalanche eventually labeled Kuemper’s issue an upper-body injury and didn’t get specific about the details or prognosis, either during or after the game.
“We’ll see,” said Avalanche coach Jared Bednar.
(Wednesday updates: On his appearance on Altitude Sports Radio Wednesday morning, Bednar said he didn’t yet know how long Kuemper would be out. “Darcy was playing and battling and didn’t say a lot,” Bednar said. “We were scoring and playing well. He was having a little trouble as the game went on. So it’s probably not his best performance early in the game for circumstances I won’t get into.”
A little later at the Avalanche’s optional practice at Ball Arena, Bednar was asked if Kuemper would have the “opportunity” to play in Game 2 Thursday.
“We’ll see,” Bednar said.
Bednar did say that Kuemper’s tardy arrival on the ice for the second period of Game 1 indeed was due to a broken strap and had nothing to do with what led to his exit from the game. He wouldn’t get into whether it was or wasn’t an eye injury.
Then I brought up Francouz saying he had some advance warning and asked about the timing of the goalie switch.
Bednar said Kuemper “relayed that he was having some issues. So I told Pav to get ready. I think it was at the end of our power play, so no immediate rush to get him out of there, and as soon as we got the opportunity, we pulled him out.”)
Kuemper appeared to take two shots to the mask. In the wake of the eye injury he suffered in Game 3 of the first-round sweep of Nashville, when Ryan Johansen’s stick went through his mask, it’s not outlandish to guess that it’s an eye/ vision issue and/or a possible concussion concern.
The other issue is whether Kuemper has played his way out of the No. 1 job, anyway.
His mercurial postseason work raises doubt about whether he’s capable of more than competence in the rest of this series and perhaps the Stanley Cup Finals going up against one of the best goalies in the world — either the Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin or the Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy.
At some point, regardless of the talent around him, Kuemper — if healthy enough to play and deemed still the starter — would need to be larcenous enough to steal a game or two and to draw “you saved our bacon” expressions of gratitude from grateful teammates.
Even the superstar roll call that was the 1996 and 2001 Stanley Cup champions had to bow before Patrick Roy several times during their runs.
It might be Francouz’s turn to face that challenge.
When he went in and made some tough saves, it was mentioned that Kuemper might be getting Wally Pipp’d. Of course, when Pipp stepped out of the Yankees’ starting lineup on June 2, 1925 because of a headache, his replacement at first base — one Lou Gehrig — went on to play 2,130 consecutive games.
Francouz won’t be that entrenched. But whether because of a Kuemper injury or his uncompelling play that doesn’t inspire confidence, or a combination of both, he’ll probably not be in the crease for Game 2 Thursday.
Plus you know the way things work: After all the talk about the offensive power in this series, and the explosive Game 1, would it be shocking if Game 2 is 0-0 heading into the third overtime? With Gretzky exasperatingly pointing out that you have to have some offense to win the Stanley Cup?
Terry Frei (email@example.com, @tfrei) is a Denver-based author and journalist. He has been named a state’s sportswriter of the year seven times in peer voting — four times in Colorado and three times in Oregon. His seven books include the novels “Olympic Affair” and “The Witch’s Season.” Among his five non-fiction works are “Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming,” “Third Down and a War to Go,” “March 1939: Before the Madness,” and “’77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age.” He also collaborated with Adrian Dater on “Save By Roy,” was a long-time vice president of the Professional Hockey Writers Association and has covered the hockey Rockies, Avalanche and the NHL at-large. His website is www.terryfrei.com and his bio is available at www.terryfrei.com/bio.html
His Colorado Hockey Now column archive can be accessed here