DENVER — Pavel Francouz, the crease is yours.
What are you going to do with this glorious opportunity?
Whether this is going to be a temporary situation or something longer term, Colorado Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar isn’t giving any hints one way or the other.
Summoned from the bullpen when starting goalie Darcy Kuemper left with an upper-body issue with 12:41 left in the second period of Game 1 of the Western Conference Final, Francouz calmly entered the game and made 18 saves, preserving an 8-6 victory over the Edmonton Oilers in a game that absolutely lived up to the enormous hype.
Francouz was alerted by one of the trainers a couple of shifts earlier that his services might be required and that Kuemper was dealing with an issue, so he had time to get loose and stretch out, but that didn’t mean he got to ease into the action.
“It’s obviously easier if you have a pretty good lead, so I think that kind of helped us for sure,” said Francouz, who was 15-5-1 with a 2.55 goals-against average and .916 save percentage during the regular season. “First of all, I’m preparing for the game the same way if I’m playing or if I’m not playing. That’s something I’ve learned from my career. During the game I’m trying to follow every play, trying to open the doors for the guys and that kind of keeps me in the game.
“I didn’t feel cold for like five seconds, I was warm pretty quickly. That wasn’t an issue. We all know what kind of players are on these two teams and we didn’t plan to play such a game, but we take this win for sure and we move forward.”
The status of Kuemper, who endured a few hiccups last round against the St. Louis Blues, could become a big storyline as this series develops, depending on how much time he misses — and how Francouz performs.
As for the first part of that equation?
“We’ll see,” said Bednar, when asked if this was going to be a day-to-day ailment or something that could be more problematic.
One thing we know for sure is that turning to Francouz isn’t quite as stressful for the Avalanche as it might be for some teams, given he’s carried the load of a No. 1 guy for stretches in the past few seasons. Francouz also already saw action in the first round against the Nashville Predators when Kuemper missed time after taking a stick in the eye from Ryan Johansen.
“Great demeanour, right? Calm, cool, collected guy,” said Bednar. “Great teammate. Guys love playing in front of him. I have a lot of faith in him. So does our team. So having a guy like that’s obviously key. (You) see through the playoffs how many teams are onto their second goalie and some teams’ third, and trying to survive you got to have capable goaltending from more than one guy, and we have it.”
Francouz gave up three goals in relief, but he also made some saves to ensure the Avalanche never lost the lead, salting things away on a late empty-netter from captain Gabe Landeskog.
“He was great. That’s hard. I mean, playing two (of) best players in the world, peppering you as soon as you come in,” said Avalanche centre Nathan MacKinnon, who was flying all night long and chipped in a goal and an assist. “It was really impressive. He works his tail off every day so wasn’t surprised and trust him as well. Hopefully (Kuemper) is okay and we get him back. But it is what it is. We’re going to have to do our best with whoever we have.”
On a night where the Avalanche took care of a number of important spaces on the checklist — a host of stars performing admirably, secondary scoring stepping to the forefront (including another fourth-line goal, this one from Andrew Cogliano), chasing opposition goalie Mike Smith after scoring six on him in just over 26 minutes of work — their attention to detail in the defensive zone was lacking at various points of the game, which ensured this contest was closer than it needed to be.
A pivotal play in the game was made by Avalanche defenceman Cale Makar, who instinctively pushed the puck in front of him as he entered the offensive zone with winger Valeri Nichushkin trying to tag up to negate the delayed offside.
Using his skating ability, Makar exploded into the zone and ripped a shot high over the glove of Smith with 13.6 seconds to go in the first period, restoring a one-goal lead nine seconds after Zach Hyman tied the contest at a time when the Avalanche were carrying the bulk of the play but couldn’t pull away.
The initial reaction from most people who saw the replay is that Makar had control of the puck on the entry, but according to the rule in question: since the puck was not on his stick upon entry, he only regained possession when it got back on his stick inside the offensive zone.
By the time that occurred, Nichushkin was ruled to be onside, so not only was the call on the ice allowed to stand, but the Oilers were given a delay-of-game minor on the play for the failed coach’s challenge.
“I just saw Cale step up, great gap. He’s able to smother the play coming out of their zone and he got the puck he wanted and he jumped by it and went on the attack,” said Bednar. “Whether he didn’t touch it on purpose or not, I have no idea. … Certainly something he’s capable of doing. (Nichushkin) does a nice job hustling out before he touches it, and obviously great shot.”
Was Makar aware of the rule in real-time and did it factor into his decision-making process?
“I haven’t even seen the replay yet,” said Makar. “I knew that they were trying to get out of the zone and my instinct was to try to give them as much time as possible, so I don’t know if I lifted my stick away from the puck or whatnot.
“It didn’t feel great when they snap-called that challenge there. I’ll take a look at it, but maybe lucky.”
That bit of good fortune for Makar and the Avalanche went a step further when Nazem Kadri added a power-play marker during the delay-of-game penalty, making it a 4-2 game.
The pace in this game was frenetic and you could see why both of these clubs were able to feast on turnovers in transition.
One thing the Avalanche did extremely well, especially in the first period, was establish a cycle game and contest virtually every puck, spending long stretches in the offensive zone and forcing the Oilers to defend.
The entertainment value in the contest was outstanding, but it also left players and coaches on both teams visibly frustrated, though it was a little easier for the Avalanche to digest after moving within three wins of qualifying for the Stanley Cup Final.
They also expect a better overall effort from the Oilers in Game 2 on Thursday and know that clamping down is the top priority as this series continues.
“If we want to win more games in the series, we have a bit of cleanup (to take care of),” said versatile Avalanche forward J.T. Compher, who scored a pair of goals to give him four in the past two games. “We can do a much better job defensively. Throughout our lineup we can be much better defensively and make it harder on their forwards. We don’t want to play the game that we played (Tuesday). We want to be tighter defensively.”