Nazem Kadri made his Stanley Cup final debut a memorable one.
The former Maple Leafs star, playing his first game in 18 days due to surgery to repair a broken thumb, scored in overtime to put the Colorado Avalanche one win away from hoisting the Stanley Cup. Their 3-2 win Wednesday gave them a 3-1 series lead.
“I’ve been waiting for this my whole life,” Kadri said. “I figured I’d stop waiting and just join the party. I’m thankful I’m able to be in this position. Couldn’t have written a better story, so I’m grateful.”
Kadri deked Mikhail Sergachev, and raised the puck under Andrei Vasilevskiy’s right arm. It settled between the back bar and the upper netting and there was momentary confusion about where the puck went.
“I just tried to make a little move and go far side,” Kadri told ESPN afterward. “I’m assuming that’s where it went. I don’t know if it found a hole. Bit of a delayed reaction. I thought he made the save for a second, but then people were sprinting towards me. It’s a good feeling.”
The Avalanche can wrap up the series Friday in Denver’s Ball Arena.
“Awesome win, going home, got to win one more. We earned that win. We dominated OT. We had a good third period. Good momentum going into Game 5,” Avalanche winger Nathan MacKinnon said.
It was the second overtime game of the series, and the Lightning lost both.
“They got the breaks. Tough loss,” Tampa Bay defenceman Victor Hedman said.
“Every game is an opportunity,” Lightning captain Steve Stamkos added. “The feeling sucks to lose, but the series wasn’t won tonight. It stings right now, but we have to go (to Denver) and win a hockey game.”
The win bodes well for the Avalanche. Teams with a 3-1 lead in a best-of-seven hold an all-time series record of 298-31 (.906), including 2-1 (.667) in 2022, and a 35-1 (.972) mark in the Stanley Cup final.
“It’s going to be tough,” said Kadri. “The last one is the hardest one to win.”
It was an unlikely goaltender battle Wednesday, with Darcy Kuemper battling Vasilevskiy save for save. Kuemper gave up a goal to Anthony Cirelli just 36 seconds into the game, but asserted himself after that. Only Hedman beat him again.
Vasilevskiy was barely tested in the first period, facing just four shots. But Colorado found its game and did its best to try to put a stranglehold on the series, scoring the greasy kind of goals that are really the only kind that were going to beat Vasilevskiy. MacKinnon got credit for a power-play goal off his skate, then Nico Sturm backhanded the puck into the chest of teammate Andrew Cogliano, with the puck deflecting past Vasilevskiy the early in the third period to tie the game 2-2 and put the Amalie Arena crowd at the edge of their seats.
The arena, by they way, may need new carpeting down the Lightning hallway to the trainers room, with so many of their players leaving the game and coming back after putting themselves in harm’s way. Cirelli, who took a skate the shoulder during a fall, and Erik Cernak, who blocked a shot, were among the latest examples of Lightning players sacrificing themselves for the greater good.
If the Lightning are having any issues besides staying healthy, it’s on their special teams. Colorado’s power play is having its way with Tampa Bay’s penalty killers. And the Lightning simply haven’t converted when they have the man advantage. It didn’t matter in the third period when the refs put their whistles away despite egregious penalties that would have been called at any other point in the playoffs, including a trip on Hedman that denied a rush, a trip on Kadri that denied a shot on goal, and a hook on the Lightning’s Nick Paul in front of Kuemper.
Kadri was back two weeks after having thumb surgery, wearing padding under his right glove to protect the thumb from the inevitable slashes that were to come. But it’s that time of year, with only a few games left, when players are simply going to grit their way through to the finish line.
“Most of the guys have a little something going on and, in these games, guys are rushing back from injuries and doing everything they can to help the team,” Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen said. “Naz is a big-time player for us. So it’s nice to see him back on the ice and working again.”
Cogliano, who missed Game 1 of the Cup final after hurting his hand in Game 4 of the conference final against Edmonton, explained the motivation to speed up the timeline to return.
“This is the reason why we play … (for) moments like this and getting this opportunity,” Cogliano said. “You do everything in your power to get back and contribute and the timeline … obviously fast-tracks it quite a bit. So, yeah, I think adrenalin kicks in because you want to get back and you want to help your team.”
Cirelli’s quick goal had tongues wagging that Avalanche coach Jared Bednar had made the wrong decision in going with Kuemper, who had a rough Game 3 and was ultimately pulled in favour of Pavel Francouz. But Kuemper proved his worth the rest of the first period. It was Tampa Bay at its most dominant, outshooting Colorado 17-4. Kuemper robbed Paul, who jumped on a turnover, and Stamkos, on his patented one-timer, to keep the game close through the first 20 minutes.
Given 22 goals were scored in the first three games, it was fairly odd to consider MacKinnon didn’t have any of them. His 11 goals were tied for second most in the playoffs. And he’d been playing well, a dynamo on skates making plays on the fly. Maybe he was trying too hard, some thought. Finally, he scored. And what a goal-scorer’s goal. Umm. Off his skate. He had started the play, though, skated toward the net and Rantanen’s pass — he was aiming for Gabe Landeskog — hit MacKinnon’s skate and only barely beat Vasilevskiy. But a goal is a goal, and the power-play marker tied the game at 5:17 of the second.
Colorado was much better in the second, outshooting Tampa 16-9, but still trailed 2-1 going into the third. Hedman, who had taken the penalty that led to MacKinnon’s goal, redeemed himself by leading a rush up the ice and beating Kuemper on an awkward backhand.
- Coming into Game 4, this had been one of the highest scoring playoffs. As of Game 3, there had been 549 goals scored this post-season, the sixth-most in a four-round playoff year in NHL history and the highest count in 29 years (581 in 1993).
- There were at least seven goals scored in each of the first three games of the final. Only two championship series in NHL history saw that happen in the first four games: 1980 and 1918.
- Lightning forward Corey Perry has Stanley Cup final goals for a record four teams: Anaheim, Dallas, Montreal and Tampa Bay.
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