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Avalanche faces goaltending questions ahead of Stanley Cup finals Game 4

Colorado goaltender Darcy Kuemper was pulled in Game 3 after allowing five goals on 22 shots. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)

TAMPA — The Colorado Avalanche didn’t enter the Stanley Cup finals expecting to dominate the goaltending matchup. Colorado knew it was facing one of the best netminders in the world in Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

So the Avalanche just needed solid goaltending to have a shot at its first title since 2001, hoping to let its skilled skaters do most of the work. But when starting goalie Darcy Kuemper was pulled in the second period of Game 3 on Monday night after letting in five goals, questions about Colorado’s longevity in the series started to sneak in.

With its series lead cut to 2-1, the Avalanche has goaltending issues to address heading into Game 4 on Wednesday night at Amalie Arena. On Tuesday, Coach Jared Bednar refused to name his Game 4 starter; he had said after Game 3 that the Avalanche would evaluate everything in net.

Kuemper allowed five goals on 22 shots before being replaced by Pavel Francouz, who recorded 10 saves on 11 shots. Kuemper had a couple of good point-blank saves early but was unable to make the stops when they mattered most.

“[Kuemper] didn’t have a good night. Neither did our team,” Bednar said after Colorado’s 6-2 loss. “We win as a team, lose as a team. I’m going to group him in with everyone else. Just wasn’t as good as we needed to be.”

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Kuemper has been Colorado’s starter for most of the season, but Francouz was solid as a backup, posting a .916 save percentage and a 2.55 goals against average. And when Kuemper suffered an upper-body injury in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, Francouz held strong, helping the Avalanche prevail in a sweep.

Still, despite Francouz’s efforts, Bednar went back to Kuemper as the starter for Game 1 of the finals. Kuemper delivered in the first two games, including a 16-save shutout during Colorado’s dominant 7-0 win in Game 2.

Bednar praised Kuemper’s efforts after Game 1, and his teammates said they aren’t concerned.

“Fully confident [he can bounce back],” defenseman Josh Manson said. “He’s in the National Hockey League for a reason. He’ll bounce back.”

Center Nathan MacKinnon added: “It’s the Stanley Cup final. We’re not expecting a sweep. . . . We knew they were too proud to go away. We still feel good. We feel good about our team, top to bottom.”

Vasilevskiy was outstanding in Game 3, regaining his form after he let in all seven Colorado goals in Game 2. Vasilevskiy made 37 saves in Game 3. Coach Jon Cooper said the goalie’s composure can be attributed to his experience and mental growth.

“Any time a goal goes in, everybody’s looking at him, and … I think the gift of him that’s made him great is the ability to turn the page,” Cooper said.

The star Russian, like many Lightning players, has been through adversity. Facing a 2-0 series deficit — and being on the wrong side of a blowout — wasn’t a foreign concept. Forward Nicholas Paul said Vasilevskiy’s determination and focus are what impress him most. So when he went through a rough Game 2, the team wasn’t worried.

“It certainly gives us confidence back there,” defenseman Zach Bogosian said. “He’s a special player that doesn’t come around very often. So we’re obviously very fortunate to have him, and he’s been the backbone of this organization for as long as he’s been here. It’s impressive to see.”

Notes: Cooper said forward Nikita Kucherov is expected to play in Game 4. He left late in Game 3 after taking a hard crosscheck from Colorado defenseman Devon Toews. But center Brayden Point, who missed Game 3, is “highly doubtful” to play Wednesday, Cooper said. Point suffered a lower-body injury in Game 7 of the first round and didn’t play again until Games 1 and 2 of the finals. . . .

Colorado forward Andre Burakovsky, who was injured in the second period of Game 2, had yet to join the team in Tampa as of Tuesday afternoon, Bednar said. He was still receiving treatment in Denver. Bednar said center Nazem Kadri is making progress after surgery on his thumb, and he is optimistic Kadri will be an option at some point in the finals.