On Media Day for the Stanley Cup Final Tuesday at Ball Arena, I was among the small pack of media folks camped put at Pod 5, patiently waiting for Avalanche goaltender Darcy Kuemper to emerge through the curtain, sit down at the microphone and respond to questions.
For those familiar with the Avalanche and the affable goalie from Saskatchewan, hopes weren’t high. We knew it would be a cordial session, but that Kuemper wouldn’t say anything particularly enlightening — and certainly not provocative.
It reminded me of when I sat down with Trail Blazers guard Clyde Drexler in Chicago at a similar session at the 1992 NBA Final against the Bulls and Michael Jordan. Drexler announced to me: “Terry, my goal is to say nothing for the next half-hour that you’ll want to write down.” (I was allowed in ahead of the pack to stake out a spot as a member of the media from the competing cities.)
Kuemper pulled off the same sort of feat with the international media cadre Tuesday, on the Eve of Game 1 against the Lightning.
The difference was, it wasn’t calculated.
That’s just Darcy.
In many instances, he reworked the questions and fashioned his answers into “it’s all about the team” responses, talking about himself only — and then only briefly — after prodding. Nathan MacKinnon tends to do the same thing, of course, but usually without the happy-guy smile and demeanor.
After recovering from his latest injury, thought to be an eye/vision/perhaps concussion problem that popped up in the sweep of Edmonton, Kuemper — rather than Pavel Francouz — is the presumed Game 1 starter for the Avalanche. (Update: He indeed was in the starter’s net at the Wednesday morning skate.)
That said, however, in the gamesmanship typical of the NHL playoffs, nobody would confirm it and Kuemper himself indicated he didn’t yet know. He said the goalies usually get the word about the starter via text the night before a game. (I’ve got a bridge in Arizona…)
His major emotion on the eve of his first appearance in the Final?
“Excitement,” he said. “We’ve had a long time off here. A lot of time to look forward to it. Great practices, we’re all feeling ready to go and excited that we’re finally getting started.”
“I’m feeling that way, too,” he said. “Super excited to get started here.”
The Final doesn’t transform his job description, he said.
“The game itself doesn’t change,” he said. “There’s obviously a lot on the line. But at the end of the day, you have to go out and play the same way that you always would. We have to keep our structure, keep playing our team game.”
He knows the pre-series narrative often starts in the net.
The Lightning have the best goalie in the world, Andrei Vasilevskiy.
The Avalanche have Darcy Kuemper and Pavel Francouz.
That was the punch line.
They are who they are — competent yet mercurial journeymen pros who only infrequently steal games. The Avalanche are emboldened to play aggressively, but that’s a mandate from the coaching staff, not an expression on undying faith in their goalies.
“I have lots of confidence in myself,” Kuemper said when the issue of Andrei Vasilevskiy came up. “All you can do is not really listen to that and go out and play your game, trust your game, have confidence in it and go do what you can to help the team.”
I asked Kuemper about the Avalanche playoff goaltending standard, with Patrick Roy’s No. 33 hanging in the rafters.
“I remember watching it, for sure,” Kuemper said of Roy, instrumental in the Avalanche’s 1996 and 2001 Stanley Cup championships.
Did he take any inspiration from it at all?
“Yes,” he said, “but at the same time, you’re just going out to play your game.”
As a player, Avalanche GM Joe Sakic twice joined Roy in hoisting the Stanley Cup. Now he’s watching the less heralded current Avalanche goalies chasing a championship.
“Our guys are comfortable with our goaltending here as well,” Sakic said at Media Day. “Both goalies can play. Darcy is 100 percent healthy now. He had a tough time with health for the one round, but he’s ready to go.
“We’re definitely confident in both goalies. They both won six games in the playoffs. Our guys are excited.”
Darcy Kuemper does have the advantage of playing with what generally is conceded to be the NHL’s top defensive corps, headlined by Cale Makar and Devon Toews.
“It’s awesome,” Kuemper said. “We’re so deep back there, and there’s so much high-end talent. It’s every goalie’s dream to play with a D-corps like that. It’s a lot of fun every game.”
In his turn at an assigned Pod, Toews said he and his teammates “have the utmost faith” in Kuemper.
“Frankie was great for us in that Edmonton series and even when he jumped into the Nashville series he was really good,” said Toews. “To have Darcy feeling good and feeling healthy, if he’s ready to go, we’re excited to have him back.”
In line with Sakic’s observations, Kuemper hasn’t played since May 31 and Game 1 of the Western Conference final against the Oilers. He left the game midway through the second period, and Francouz was in net for the rest of the 8-6 Game 1 win and then for the remaining three games in the series. In the postseason, Kuemper has a goals-against average of 2.65 and a .897 save percentage. Francouz checks in at 2.86 and .906.
Kuemper said he wasn’t sweating the issue of whether he would be back in the No. 1 role when he was physically able to return.
“I just worried about practicing hard and being ready to go whether I was playing, or whether I wasn’t,” he said.
In fact, Bednar seems likely to put a recovered Kuemper back in the crease for Game 1.
“I’m ready to go,” Kuemper said. “It was super hard watching but it made it easier with how much success we were having. Frankie came in and was unbelievable and we were able to win four straight. That made it a little bit more easy to be on the sideline. I wanted to be out there, but at the same time, you have to be in a position to be able to help the team. It was good to get back and now I’m excited to move forward here.”
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