TRAIKOS: Avalanche proving that you might not need a true No. 1 to win a Stanley Cup

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DENVER — Give it up for the Other Guy.

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When it comes to who has the edge in net in the Stanley Cup final, there really should be no debate. At one of the ice is a Vezina Trophy winner and defending playoff MVP who has posted an unreal .930 save percentage during his team’s past three championship runs. At the other end is a 32-year-old late-bloomer who has bounced between five different minor-league teams — and two minor-league levels — and spent the majority of his NHL career as a backup to better goalies.

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And yet, in Game 1 of the final, it was Colorado’s Darcy Kuemper who out-duelled Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy in a 4-3 overtime win.

“He’s the best goalie in the world,” Kuemper said of Vasilevskiy. “I can’t worry about trying to outplay him. I’ve just got to go out there and play my game and do what I can to help the team win.”

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In the process, Kuemper gave a glimmer of hope to all the other journeymen out there who are waiting for an opportunity to shine. More importantly, he might also have given hope to the countless other teams in the league wondering if they can win a championship without an elite No. 1 goalie.

Then again, even if a team such as Toronto or Edmonton wanted an elite goalie, good luck finding him.

If the playoffs have shown us anything, it’s that there aren’t many goalies at Vasilevskiy’s level to go around these days — especially now that Carey Price, Marc-Andre Fleury and Jonathan Quick have reached their expiration dates. There’s maybe one in New York (Igor Shesterkin), another maybe in Winnipeg (Connor Hellebuyck) and in Anaheim (John Gibson) and in Florida (Igor Bobrovsky) and … well, that’s pretty much it.

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That’s a big part of the reason why the Lightning are eyeing a third straight championship — and why Colorado, which has used 12 different goalies in the previous four years, hadn’t advanced past the second round until they traded a first-round pick (and more) to Arizona for Kuemper last summer.

At the time, it seemed like a steep price for someone who had only started 30 or more games twice in his 10-year career. But with Colorado now three wins away from winning a championship, it appears to be working out.

“A couple of years ago, Kuemper was fourth in the Vezina voting,” said TSN analyst and former NHL goalie Jamie McLennan. “He’s not Vasilevskiy. But those guys are few and far between. I think he’s somewhere in between. I think he can be a No. 1 on the right team.”

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In other words, it has helped that Kuemper is playing behind Norris Trophy finalist Cale Makar, Devon Toews and arguably the deepest defence in the league. Or that the Avalanche, who are averaging a playoff-leading 4.6 goals per game, have the ability to outscore their problems. Or that if Kuemper should get hurt again or slip up — he missed one game in the first round after getting jabbed in the eye with a stick and another three games in the conference final with a lower-body injury — that the team has an adequate No. 2 in Pavel Francouz, who is 6-0 in the playoffs.

That had some wondering if Kuemper would even get the nod for Game 1 of the final, something that head coach Jared Bednar added intrigue to when he refused to announce who would be the in net. You don’t get that from Lightning head coach Jon Cooper, who couldn’t resist taking a not-so-subtle jab at Bednar’s close-to-the-vest secrecy when asked whether there was an advantage in keeping the starter a mystery.

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“Well, we kind of know, don’t we?” said Cooper, smiling. “You mean our goaltender? Oh, theirs?”

By the end of the night, however, it was clear that Colorado made the right choice.

Kuemper, who allowed three goals on 23 shots, may not have been the reason the Avalanche won the game. But he also wasn’t the reason they lost it. That’s all they need from him. 

If Colorado is going to win the series, it won’t be because they got into a goalie duel with Tampa Bay. It will be because Kuemper wasn’t the story on most nights.

“Darcy is a guy we leaned on heavily all year long,” said Bednar. “It’s why we relied on him to do this job. I thought he was pretty good (in Game 1). The goals we gave up and the chances we gave up we made some big mistakes on. Guy gets behind us on the first one, another guy had a back-door tap in on the second one. And the third one is through traffic and gets deflected close to the net. He made some big saves for us. Got us a win. So I was pretty happy with his performance.”

If it keeps up, then you can bet teams will be lining up trying to sign Kuemper as an unrestricted free agent this summer. Then again, if he’s too pricey, you might be able to get by with some other guy.

“If he ends up winning a Cup, that moves him over the top as the No. 1 free agent goalie,” said McLennan. “As last night showed, Kuemper was good but he didn’t need to be great. That’s all Colorado needed. There are different paths to winning a Stanley Cup.”

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twitter.com/Michael_Traikos

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