He didn’t say much then, either. Brent Belecki knew if Darcy Kuemper felt ready to rock by looking deep into his eyes. If he spotted any flames, even a flicker, burning from the soul to the pupils, the kid was good to go between the pipes.
“If people don’t know (Kuemper), they see him as a little quiet, or aloof, at times,” said Belecki, who was Kuemper’s position coach for two seasons with the Red Deer (Alberta) Rebels of the Western Hockey League .
“But it’s the exact opposite. You don’t need to yell and scream and take over the microphone. You can do your talking on the ice.”
From his home in Calgary, where he works as a firefighter, Belecki’s watched the Avalanche goaltender these last seven weeks get battered, bruised, kicked and, against Nashville, poked in the stinkin’ eye.
“(Darcy) is a keen competitor,” Belecki noted. “So if he was able to go, he would. Something’s bothering him. I’m not sure what it is.”
He doesn’t want to speculate, at this point. But he knows this: If Kuemper says, as the netminder intimated late last week, that he’s “100%” ready to go for the Stanley Cup Finals this week, well, that’s good enough for him. And it should be good enough for Avs coach Jared Bednar, too.
“(Kuemper) would just embrace it,” Belecki said. “Don’t think he’d say much about it. But I know he’d be burning up inside.”
A decade ago, the two spent hours on the ice before Red Deer practices, two or three times a week, 10 days a month. They broke down tape, then worked on smoothing over Kuemper’s rough edges in the crease. Movement stuff. Positioning stuff. Mental stuff, mostly.
“(He wasn’t) a prototypical ‘weird goalie,'” Belecki recalled. “Quite a reserved, focused player. No quirks.
“But you’d kind of look into his eyes and there’s an intensity there and a drive that wants to perform. And knows he can perform well, for sure.”
If you’re Bednar, trust the optics. And your gut. Dance with the one that brung ya.
If Kuemper can see out of his dinged right peeper, that’s your Game 1 starter. Right there.
Love Frankie. Pavel Francouz is a cult hero, a cat-quick, right-catching change of pace and the Brock Osweiler of this magic carpet ride. The Avs don’t get this far without him.
But Frankie’s also used to coming off the bench in an emergency. He’s better suited for the quick-change-scramble-switcheroo, such as the one that took place midway through the second period of Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals after Kuemper’s reported upper-body injury.
“(I’d) just talked to (trainer) Matty (Sokolowski) that something was up, and I didn’t want to throw Frankie in unexpected therely,” Kuemper recalled late last week. “So I told him to tell Frankie to start getting ready and at the TV timeout, make the switch.”
Which they did. The Avs were up 6-3 at the time and went on to win the opener over the high-flying Oilers by a rec league score of 8-6.
“It’s never fun watching from the sideline, especially in big games,” Kuemper reflected. “But Frankie came in and did a great job. And it was great watching the guys go out there and get wins and handle the series.”
As to which netminder probably handles the heat better on the road, that edge likely goes to Kuemper, too. Since the fall of 2016, the former is 3-0 at Madison Square Garden with a 3.01 Goals Against Average (GAA) and 1-2 at Tampa’s Amalie Arena with a 3.26 GAA. Francouz has yet to appear in a game at MSG and is 1-0 in one career appearance in Tampa with a 2.00 GAA.
“I mean, they’re (both) still being evaluated, for sure,” Bednar said of his two goals. “But, yeah, the body of work now is done. This is (about) rest and preparation.”
This is about precedent, too. Only four other NHL teams ever had a playoff runs in which two different goals won at least five games apiece. Just three squads in time-share mode between the pipes have gone on to win the whole shebang. Every move made from here on out inches you one step closer to history.
“I’m not shocked with where (Kuember) is at, or how he’s performed at all,” Belecki said. “In our talks, (I told him), ‘As a goaltender, you can’t be very high or low. You can’t run on emotions.”
Every once and a while, though, if you look closely enough, a little spark comes out. Such as the instant last Thursday afternoon, when a reporter asked Kuemper if he deserved to start Game 1.
“That’s not my decision,” the Avs goaltender replied quickly.
As Kuemper spoke, his pupils flashed. For an instant, they appeared to glow, gasping for air like the dying embers of a campfire. The eyes have it.