Avalanche’s troubles in net expand with Darcy Kuemper’s surprise injury

Dec 2, 2021, 6:35 AM
Darcy Kuemper...
(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Sometime prior to the Avalanche’s opening face-off with the Maple Leafs in Toronto on Wednesday, starting goaltender Darcy Kuemper suffered what head coach Jared Bednar called an “upper body injury,” one serious enough not only to pull him from his expected start, but one that invites speculation and raises concern for a championship-caliber team that’s struggled to find consistent goaltending in the wake of Philip Grubauer’s surprising free-agent defection to the expansion Seattle Kraken in the offseason.

“I found out after I did (his pregame press conference). Like, 30 minutes after,” Bednar explained, revealing the timeline of Kuemper’s injury prior to the game, and the uncertain one yet to come following the loss of the Avalanche’s starter. “I don’t have a sense of how severe it is. He’ll stay on the trip for now. We’ll keep an eye on him for a couple of days and see how it plays out.”

The injury is severe enough that the Avs flew goaltending prospect Justus Annunen from Colorado to Toronto… mid-game. Annunen, a 21-year-old netminder for the Colorado Eagles who earned the AHL Goaltender of the Month for November after going 5-1-2 for the month with a 1.83 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage, arrived at the Scotiabank Arena in time for the second period. That allowed the Avalanche to relieve the spectacularly named Jett Alexander, a second-year student at the University of Ontario, who served as the team’s emergency backup goaltender after Kuemper had been scratched and Jonas Johansson was tabbed to start in net.

The start proved to be a disaster for Johansson, who allowed two goals in the first eight minutes of the game and a whopping six more after that. His coach’s unhappiness with his performance was palpable.

“He wasn’t good,” Bednar said.

He wasn’t, but it wasn’t all his fault, either. Plopped into the starting lineup shortly before game-time and facing one of the best goal-scorers in the league in Auston Matthews, the Avalanche’s vaunted defense also hung Johansson out to dry on more than a few occasions, including on Matthews’ second goal of his eventual hat trick, when he stood alone in front of Johansson at point-blank range as the Avs’ defenders somehow lost track of the one player they had no business losing track of. Matthews proceeded to use his free time to toy with Johansson before casually flipping the puck over his left shoulder for a goal that was replayed around the United States and Canada all night long. It was that kind of game.

Avalanche team captain Gabriel Landeskog wasn’t willing to pin the loss entirely on Johansson, either.

“That was not the issue,” Landy said after the game. “The issue was we just didn’t play good enough.”

There’s no doubt about that. On a game where superstar center Nathan MacKinnon returned to the Avs’ top line after missing the team’s eight previous contests — and earning a pair of assists in the process — the Avalanche were outshot by 10, and lost 20 more face-offs against a good Toronto team that Colorado made look like a great one.

“You’re only as good as as you play, and tonight we didn’t play very good, so we’re not a very good hockey team tonight,” Landeskog continued. “But we know that we can be, and tonight is just a good reality check.”

In the end, this game may be quickly forgotten as an anomaly; a momentary blip on the league’s radar screen that could be erased with a win in Montreal on Thursday night. But the Avalanche will have to figure out who’s in net first.

It’s reasonable to assume that it won’t be Kuemper, and possibly won’t be for at least the remainder of this road trip. After allowing eight goals, it’s hard to imagine Bednar would immediately put Johansson back in net for the second night in a row. Pavel Francouz has been assigned to the Eagles on a conditioning assignment, and his status is as murky as it has been for more than 15 months now.

The fact that the Avalanche flew Annunen out so quickly speaks volumes. The Avalanche’s top goaltending prospect, Annunen hasn’t played since winning for the Eagles last Saturday and should be well-rested going into Thursday’s matchup with the Canadiens.

“I’ll talk to (general manager) Joe (Sakic) tonight and see what he thinks,” Bednar said about Annunen’s possible NHL debut after the game. “I’ll talk with our coaching staff. I’m not that far yet.”

He’ll have to be there quickly; as head coach of a Stanley Cup favorite, the notion of having another playoff run ended by an uncertain goaltending situation — due to either injury or performance — Wednesday’s situation has to have set off alarm bells throughout the Avalanche’s organization.

The eight goal-horn blasts from Toronto are still echoing throughout the Rocky Mountains.


Shawn Drotar is the on-air host of “Sandy and Shawn;” weeknights from 9p-midnight on 104.3 The Fan.


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