The Avalanche’s goaltending is suddenly a position of strength. And it’s largely thanks to the long-awaited return of Pavel Francouz

Jan 24, 2022; Denver, Colorado, USA; Colorado Avalanche goaltender Pavel Francouz (39) before the game against the Chicago Blackhawks at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

For the majority of the early parts of the season, the one blip in a star-studded Avalanche lineup was their goaltending.

Newcomer Darcy Kuemper — whom the Avs paid a hefty price to acquire — was not playing up to his standard. And backup goalie Pavel Francouz was injured during a preseason game that kept him out for the first two months of the season. Colorado was forced at times to use third-string goalie Jonas Johansson, who was since moved on, and young rookie Justus Annunen. They’ve even flirted with two emergency backup goalies.

Suddenly a position of strength — one that produced a Vezina Finalist in 2021 — was dealing with major issues. Goaltending had been the one big question mark surrounding a team with Stanley Cup aspirations.

But all of that has changed since the calendar flipped to 2022. And it was on full display at Ball Arena on Monday. Francouz started for the Avs and made 23 saves in a 2-0 shutout victory over the visiting Chicago Blackhawks. It was his second shutout in a row following a performance where he came up huge in the shootout against a strong Minnesota Wild team.

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The goalie at the other end was none other than reigning Vezina Trophy winner Marc-Andre Fleury — also the guy many speculate could be the missing piece for Colorado. Fleury had his own exceptional showing, making 27 stops to keep the Blackhawks within reach.

But Francouz’s sharp play, mixed with a suddenly rejuvenated Kuemper has given the Avalanche the 1A and 1B tandem goaltending they had hoped to have in the offseason. It’s as if Francouz’s long-awaited return has jumpstarted Kuemper to the player the team had hoped he would be.

“Both guys are playing unreal,” forward Mikko Rantanen said following the Avalanche’s seventh consecutive victory. “We can put either one in the net and we have a chance to win so that’s what you want when you go closer to playoffs and the second half of the year.

“Big, big games coming up. It’s fun to watch those guys play.”

Francouz made his season debut, his first regular-season game in nearly two years, in a strange mid-December game in Nashville where the Avs had a COVID outbreak and as a result, had to play with a shorthanded lineup. But since that evening, and the 17-day pause that followed, Francouz has been unbeatable.

Francouz is 6-0-0 in January, starting four games and winning two more in relief. He has surrendered just nine goals on 155 shots and has two of three Avs shutouts. He’s also sporting a .942 save percentage.

Kuemper had a shakier start to January but has since found his stride. He even recorded his first shutout with Colorado last week in Anaheim. Despite getting pulled twice — once because of an injury and once after a poor showing against Toronto — Kuemper still has a glowing .925 save percentage since Jan. 1. He has a 6-0-1 record, dropping the only Avalanche game on the second leg of a back-to-back in overtime in Nashville.

“The schedule is really tight right now so I think it helps when we can alternate the games and not get too tired,” Francouz said. “I think it works pretty well for the team and I hope we’ll keep rolling.”

Both goalies even got the Avs through a stretch of five games in seven nights by splitting duties. Bednar has not shied away from taking full advantage of his sharp tandem, especially at a time when games are seemingly being played every other night.

“We just take it week by week and try to lay out a plan so we’re playing a rested goalie,” Avs coach Jared Bednar said. “It’s that time of year. It’s the same with the goalies as it is for our team — trying to balance that rest/work ratio.”

If this is what the Avs are going to get from their two netminders, then the Fleury rumors should be put to rest. General manager Joe Sakic could instead use his time and assets elsewhere leading up to the March 21 trade deadline. Perhaps by shoring up his defense or loading up on another offensive weapon.

And it’s all thanks to Francouz’s resurgence and Kuemper elevating his play.

The Avs’ victory over the Blackhawks was their 16th straight at Ball Arena. They also improved to 12-0-1 in January and 17-1-1 in their last 19 games dating back to Dec. 6.

Center Nazem Kadri continued his red hot season by scoring his 16th of the year, which was the eventual game-winning goal. The only other tally came from Rantanen, who has a team-leading 22 goals on the season. Kadri remains in fifth place in the NHL points race but Rantanen has suddenly climbed all the way up to seventh.

“He just has that whole package, the entire package,” Bednar said of Rantanen. “The size, the vision, the ability to score, make plays, play in traffic and play with guys on his back.”

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Aarif Deen
 is our Colorado Avalanche beat reporter. He covers Avs games live from Ball Arena and attends practices, media availabilities and other events pertaining to the Avs on the daily beat. He is also a co-host of Hockey Mountain High: Your go-to Avalanche Podcast. Deen joined Mile High Sports upon completion of his bachelor’s degree in journalism and master’s in business administration from the University of Michigan – Dearborn. Before Mile High Sports, Deen worked for the Michigan Wolverines Athletics Department as the assistant sports information director.

Follow him on Twitter @runwriteAarif

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