TAMPA — Never mind that Nazem Kadri struggled to shoot anything at full capacity.
That didn’t stop the Colorado Avalanche star from stepping out of the press box to score the most important goal of his career on Wednesday night, beating Andrei Vasilevskiy with a perfect shot that found the microscopic space between blocker and under the right armpit of the Tampa Bay Lightning world goaltender at 12:02 of the first overtime.
The hit wasn’t a change, but it wasn’t full throttle either.
It was a slightly rolling puck that came off the tip of Kadri’s stick blade, trumping Vasilevskiy and giving the Avalanche a 3-1 series lead after a 3-2 win at Amalie Arena.
“Oh man, a roller coaster of emotions,” Kadri said, speaking to members of the media for the first time since Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals. “I just thought I was done and then I had a glimmer of hope (after the surgery).
“Sitting here right now is a bit surreal. I’m just thrilled to be joining the team again and being in the dressing room. That’s what I’ve been waiting for pretty much my whole life.
The mere presence of Kadri in the lineup was enough to give the Avalanche an emotional boost.
That he was the author of the signature moment in this pivotal game was truly something to behold.
“Bold performances, you know? He put a lot of effort into making sure he could not only come back to play, but that he could come back and perform to the best of his abilities with the injury he suffered” , said Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar, “It’s not easy to do, straighten up an injury like that. It shows you how dedicated he was.”
Kadri’s dedication was never in question.
It was always going to be a matter of when, not if, he returned for the Stanley Cup Finals.
“You know he wasn’t going to fall easily. It’s inspiring for everyone to see a teammate like him trying to come back and fighting every day to try and improve and finally he’s back in the lineup,” said the captain. of the Avalanche Gabriel Landeskog. “Without a doubt, it was exciting for us and gave us a different perspective. You can’t make this stuff up. Lots of overtime and it’s great to see.
Kadri made a shrewd move to go inside and while he was pretty sure the shot had beaten Vasilevskiy, there was a moment when he wondered if the game was over or not.
“I was trying to go far. You know, I knew I had a really good shot and maybe I had a chance,” Kadri said. “Actually, I thought it was originally, but Vasilevskiy kind of tricked me there. I thought maybe it was stuck between his arm. He was swimming in the crease a bit and I thought maybe he had it.
“It was definitely a few confusing seconds there and then I saw everyone rushing onto the ice. That’s when I knew it was confirmed. It’s nice to do it.
Kadri was asked about Lightning head coach Jon Cooper’s cryptic suggestion that the game should have been called off for an illegal substitution because he came on the ice early for Nathan MacKinnon.
“I’m not quite sure what he’s thinking, why it shouldn’t have counted. It confuses me a bit,” Kadri said. “The puck hit the back of the net, end of story. I don’t know why he would say that.
Based on his progress over the past week, Kadri was able to build up to this point and eventually convinced Bednar it was time to put him back together.
“He’s preparing for it,” Bednar said. “A lot of discussions with the coaches, especially. And then when he thinks about it and he gets closer the last few days, so I talked to him. I want to know what he’s able to do, what he can’t do, if anything, how he feels about it, making sure he’s confident he can come back and to help.
“I don’t want him if he can’t play the right way and accomplish what we need to accomplish. He was pretty sure, (I) liked the way his skates were going, so obviously we want a player of his caliber in the roster.
Kadri did not disappoint, although it took him some time to acclimate to the pace of the game, which is hard to do coming into a series with the intensity of this one knowing what was in store. game for both teams.
With the thumb injury he’s been battling, Kadri was used on the left wing with Valeri Nichushki on the right and Landeskog passing through the middle and taking all the responsibility in the face-off circle.
By the time the night was over and the celebration was winding down, Kadri had completed 26 shifts in 18:42 of ice time, recording two shots on goal and five shot attempts while adding one hit.
“That says a lot (about) what we already know,” MacKinnon said. “A super resilient human being, a big boost for us to get this guy back.”
Now that he has his legs under him after missing the previous four games with an injury he suffered in Game 3 of the last round against the Edmonton Oilers when Evander Kane pushed him against the band from behind, Kadri thinks he will continue to make an impact.
It was a bold performance from the Avalanche, who rallied to win despite Anthony Cirelli giving up a goal 36 seconds into the game and misfiring by a 17-4 margin (although the shot attempts were 23-22 for Tampa Bay).
MacKinnon scored his first goal of the series and burst out laughing with a reporter when the subject came up.
Oddly enough, it wasn’t a one-time shot or a special event, but instead a shot from Mikko Rantanen came out of Vasilevskiy’s pad and slammed into MacKinnon’s skate.
Finally, the Avalanche attack engine was on the board and you can be sure it brought a sense of relief.
Speaking of relief, Darcy Kuemper’s determined play was also a major storyline, with the Avalanche goaltender making 37 saves after being taken out of Game 3 (allowing five goals on 22 shots on goal).
Not only did Kuemper take on Vasilevskiy, but he started the game on the overtime winner, making a perfect pass out of the area to Artturi Lehkonen, who blasted Kadri for the shot that sealed the deal.
“I just thought he had a fight. I mean, I never doubt his care, his trial,” Bednar said. “I think you go through our roster, there are guys who had bad playoff games. It’s so much more amplified when he’s a goalkeeper, because he’s your last line of defense. »
The Stanley Cup will be in the building Friday night and the Avalanche now have three chances to win it for the first time since 2001.
This group has been locked in on a singular goal since training camp and has become accustomed to weeding out the narratives surrounding previous playoff disappointments, one by one.
This next one will be the steepest yet, but one of the leaders of this Avalanche team has made it clear he’s not going to be overwhelmed by this moment.
“We just have to stick with it and do what we’ve been doing all season. That’s what we’re going to preach,” MacKinnon said. “Obviously they’re probably preaching ‘they’ve never been here, they’re going to be tight’ and that’s right. But we’ll be ready to go. We’ve been great under pressure all playoffs, all season. .