(AP) – Darcy Kuemper’s hockey card collection as a kid in Saskatoon, Canada, included plenty of his favorite player, Hall of Famer Patrick Roy.
The goaltender of the No. 1-seeded Colorado Avalanche wanted to make saves like Roy, step up big like Roy and collect something else Roy-like — titles.
Kuemper’s gets his shot as the Avalanche try to hoist the Stanley Cup for the first time since Roy backstopped the team to a championship in 2000-01. Game 1 of the first-round series against Nashville is Tuesday night in Denver.
The series features two of the best defensemen in the league — Colorado’s Cale Makar and Nashville’s Roman Josi — and plenty of scoring, but boils down to what it usually does: goaltending.
The Predators will be without Juuse Saros and his 38 wins this season for the opening two games due to a left leg injury. It will either be David Rittich or Connor Ingram in net for Game 1.
The Avs have Kuemper, who is coming off a season in which he appeared in a career-high 57 games and won a career-best 37, which was fifth-most in club history.
“Playoffs are so fun,” said Kuemper, who turns 32 on Thursday, just in time for Game 2. “You’ve just got to kind of shut off the outside noise and just cherish the moment. Playoff hockey obviously is what you grew up dreaming of.”
Just like he grew up yearning to be the next version of Roy. Kuemper has settled in with Roy’s former team since being acquired from Arizona last summer.
“He’s been a rock for us back there,” defenseman Devon Toews said. “We just love that he makes saves.”
Kuemper, though, has struggled against Nashville this season. He allowed four goals in a shootout loss to the Predators last Thursday, and five in an OT loss in Nashville on Jan. 11.
In between, though, there have been some beauties like turning back a career-best 49 shots , 11 in overtime, during a 2-1 win at Edmonton on April 9.
“Great teammate, work ethic, competitor,” said Avalanche coach Jared Bednar, whose team has been eliminated in the second round of the playoffs in each of the past three seasons, including last year against Vegas after leading 2-0 in the series. “Quiet guy. Just wants to go about his business and help your team win.”
On the other end of the ice, the Predators have a quandary in net with Saros sidelined. It could be Rittich, who picked up a shootout win over Colorado last week, or Connor Ingram, who has made three career NHL appearances.
“He (Saros) has been a real strong backbone of our team,” Predators coach John Hynes said. “He’s preparing himself, mentally, to make sure that when and if he’s ready, then then he’s going to be ready to go.”
The Avalanche are coming off a season in which they recorded a franchise-most 119 points, breaking the mark held by the 2000-01 squad. Colorado had 308 goals (not counting shootouts) this season, which was the second-most since arriving in Denver. It trails only the ’95-96 team (326) that also won the Cup.
“There’s a lot of excitement in the room,” Kuemper said. “Just ready to get going.”
Avs captain Gabriel Landeskog returns to the lineup after undergoing knee surgery on March 14. He used the off time to study his team and recharge.
“Hopefully the adjustment period of coming back won’t be too long,” said Landeskog, who had 30 goals and 29 assists.
As the last seed in the West during the 2017 postseason, the Predators swept the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks on their way to their only Stanley Cup Final appearance.
“You take experience from every playoff run you have,” said Predators forward Filip Forsberg, who was part of that postseason march. “You try to make the best out of it.”
Makar and Josi are favorites to win the Norris Trophy, which goes to the league’s top defenseman. Both make strong cases, too. Makar led all blue-liners with 28 goals, while Josi was tops among defensemen in points with 96.
“He’s such a fun player to watch,” Josi, the 2020 Norris winner, said of Makar.
The Avalanche had eight different players reach 50 or more points this season, matching the ’82-83 Quebec Nordiques for most in franchise history. Mikko Rantanen led the way with a career-best 92 (36 goals, 56 assists).
Matt Duchene set the Nashville franchise record with 43 goals. He finished with 86 points for the best season of his career in his third season with the Predators.
It’s a reunion of sorts for Duchene, who was drafted third overall by Colorado in 2009. He scored 178 goals over nine seasons with the Avalanche before being traded.
No hard feelings, of course.
“He just needed a change of scenery,” Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon said. “Dutchy’s a great player.”
By PAT GRAHAM, AP Sports Writer … AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker contributed to this report.
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