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Conference Finals Preview: Oilers, Avalanche net minders seek an advantage

McDavid vs. MacKinnon, but what about Kuemper vs. Smith?

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Colorado Avalanche at St. Louis Blues Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The Colorado Avalanche and Edmonton Oilers are set for a much anticipated seven-game series in the conference final. The winner goes on to play for the league’s most coveted prize, the Stanley Cup. With just four teams remaining in the hunt for the cup, netminding and defensive structure heavily impact the outcome. These outcomes will separate those who come close to glory and those who earn the right to grasp it firmly. So how do these two teams match up between the pipes? Let’s take a look.

The Kuemperor or Frankie?

The Avalanche came into these playoffs hoping that Darcy Kuemper could return to the mid-season form that had him briefly among NHL media’s Vezina talk. He started the Nashville series and looked up to the task but hasn’t been confident since Johansson’s stick went through his mask and caught his eye. I can’t help but wonder how that’s affected him psychologically. Kuemper’s 2.44 GAA and .904 SV% so far won’t be enough for him to make a difference in this series. Darcy will have to be better against a team that can score like the Edmonton Oilers. The Oilers are averaging 34.9 shots on net per contest. If these statistics remain throughout the series, saving 90.4% of those 34.9 shots still puts Kuemper on pace to give up more than (3.35) three goals a game. That can’t happen if the Avalanche wants to advance. The good news is, I doubt the Oilers can get as many shots off against the Avalanche as they have the Kings and Flames. Colorado has better structure and defenders than both of those teams and thus, allowed the fewest shots of any team in the playoffs.

It’s possible that Kuemper feels a bit of relief and that some pressure has lifted off of him and the rest of the squad just because they have made it this far. I imagine if you asked Darcy, he would say that he hasn’t played his best hockey, and yet, here he is starting in his first WCF. He got bailed out by gusty defensive plays when he was up the creek without a paddle in the series-clinching victory over the Blues.

I’m not trying to jab at Kuemper. I’m pointing out that if he can be better and not just good enough, the Avalanche can be even harder to beat. That is a freeing notion to someone likely feeling the pressure of playoff hockey. Can Kuemper turn things around with what feels like a second chance? I believe so.

If, for whatever reason, Kuemper cannot provide some stability in the net, look no further than “back-up” Pavel Francouz for some help. I genuinely consider Fracouz a 1B goaltender and think the proof is in how he played against the Predators in round one. After Frankie came in ice-cold to secure the victory in Game 3, he made some big saves in Game 4 to give his partner more time to heal that eye injury. Sometimes it feels like Francouz is better at being inside of games that don’t feature a lot of shots on goal than Kuemper. Kuemper is at his best when tested early and often and seemingly much more aggressive. If that doesn’t bode well for this matchup, we could see more of Francouz than expected.

A familiar foe in Edmonton

The Oilers bring a familiar face to the table in this matchup. Mike Smith and the Colorado Avalanche have been playoff oppositions before, only this time, Smith is no longer a Calgary Flame, and he isn’t facing the 2019 Colorado Avalanche. Back then, Smith didn’t fair well statistically but did make some saves that kept the series closer than it was. Smith was 1-4 with a 3.20 GAA and .917 SV% in a series that Colorado dominated from start to finish.

He has been much better throughout the 2022 playoffs and hopes for that to continue against the Avalanche. Mike is posting a 2.70 GAA and a .927 SV%, and If you combine that with Colorado’s 39.8 shots on goal per contest, Smith will give up roughly three (2.9) goals a game in this series. Keep in mind these statistics are only linear in terms of the past. They will change for each goalie depending on how the series goes. The questions are, do the Avalanche already know how to solve Smith? Or does he have it going on with the best team he’s ever played behind?

Edmonton also has tender Mikko Koskinen waiting in the wings if things don’t work out for Mike Smith. Koskinen looked to be the starter in Edmonton for some time this season, but it’s been all Mike Smith in the playoffs. The 33-year-old from Vantaa, Finland, doesn’t have the playoff experience that Smith brings to the table, and that is likely why he has started just one playoff game this year.

Who has the advantage?

This matchup is seemingly awash with the information we have right now, as neither team seems to have the clear advantage via goaltending. I will say that the matchups elsewhere will significantly impact how each netminder fairs. If Colorado can dictate the pace of play and at least contain Conor McDavid and Leon Drisaitl, there should be fewer chances for Edmonton and, in turn, fewer than their league-leading 4.33 goals per game. That presents an incredible opportunity for Kuemper to steal the show.

On the flip side, If Edmonton turns this into a track meet, It will be a high-flying and stressful series with many lead changes. Colorado is built for both but would prefer to create opportunities within their process, whereas Edmonton’s game-breakers can take over inside of a high-scoring contest. Let us know who you think has the advantage in the comments!