Matt Murray stepped on the ice on the first day of the 2017 NHL playoffs ready to lead the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup once again. He didn’t make it to puck drop.
An injury during warmups sidelined him for a month and turned the job over to Marc-Andre Fleury. Murray returned more than a month later and backstopped the Penguins to another title.
Five years later, Murray watches the Colorado Avalanche knowing how it feels to be Darcy Kuemper, who could be in net for the Stanley Cup Final after missing most of the third round and giving way to backup Pavel Francouz.
One of just five teams in league history to have two different goaltenders win at least five games during a playoff run, the Avalanche are attempting to join Murray’s Penguins, the 1972 Boston Bruins and 1969 Montreal Canadiens as the only champions that split duties in the crease.
“I know from firsthand experience how difficult it can be to jump in when you haven’t played in a while and when you weren’t necessarily expecting to play that much,” Murray said. “What Kuemper was doing is obviously very impressive but also extremely impressive what Francouz has done, as well. You just try to be ready as much as you can.”
Much like Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia in 2010, Colorado’s situation has been determined by injuries. Kuemper took an inadvertent stick to the eye through his mask during the first round and was again replaced by Francouz midway through the opener of the Western Conference Final when he didn’t feel right.
Kuemper and Francouz have now each won six games this postseason. The Avalanche need four more victories for the franchise’s third championship and first since 2001, and coach Jared Bednar won’t tip his hand on who’s starting Game 1 of the final next week.
“It’s a tough decision,” Bednar said.
Needing to decide between Kuemper, Colorado’s starter all year, and Francouz, who’s a perfect 6-0, is one of the drawbacks to a two-goalie rotation in the playoffs.
“It’s a good situation to have two goalies, but it’s a bad situation to be thinking, ‘Which goalie should we start?’” said Michael Leighton, who won eight games to Brian Boucher’s six during the Flyers’ run to the final in 2010. “That’s a tough situation for the coaches and for the team because sometimes a team is playing better in front of one goalie and not the other, so you’ve got to make the right decision on putting the goalie in that’s going to help you win.”
Leighton helped Philadelphia complete the rare comeback from being down 3-0 in a series to knock off Boston after missing eight weeks with a high ankle sprain. “When I jumped into that game my knees were shaking,” he said.
Boucher made two more relief appearances the rest of the playoffs despite playing on two bad knees with a sprained ligament in each.
“I was not even close to 100%,” Boucher said. “But I just so badly wanted to be a part of something that I wanted to see out to the end.”
They look at Francouz and consider it a benefit the 2018 Olympic star for the Czechs saw some action against Nashville in the first round before he got thrown into a series against Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and the Edmonton Oilers.
“If he goes months without playing, it’s a totally different story,” Boucher said. “You’re trying to catch a moving train that’s going at 100 mph, and that’s hard. Now at least he’s in motion. He’s in motion catching this train as opposed to standing still.”
For goalies like Francouz watching the entire St. Louis series in the second round and then Kuemper missing much of the West final, practice becomes essential. At a time when full team practices are rare and banged-up players often opt not to skate, those who have done this before know it takes a focused approach to be ready.
“It’s just about taking practice extremely seriously and playing as if it were a game: Competing on every single puck and bringing a game-like mentality to practice,” said Murray, now with Ottawa. “That’s the best way to go about it because it’s maybe a little bit less of a transition to the game. And really, at that point of the season, it’s all about your mentality.”
Francouz stayed mentally ready and soaked in chants of “Frankie! Frankie!” from fans in Denver. “I’m just trying to enjoy this moment,” he said, “because it’s something you work for your whole life.”
Colorado’s next opponent will be a team that has gotten there with the far more traditional path of starting one goaltender in every playoff game. The Tampa Bay Lightning have ridden Andrei Vasilevskiy to back-to-back championships, and the New York Rangers reached the East final on the back of Vezina Trophy finalist Igor Shesterkin.
The Avalanche have made do, but having one elite netminder is still the preferred option.
“Any head coach would rather have that, knowing that every time he puts his name on the lineup card that he’s going to give him an A-plus quality start, as opposed to two guys that you’re just not sure of,” Boucher said. “If you don’t have goaltending, you got nothing.”
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