TAMPA, Fla. — Nazem Kadri knows how to make an entrance.
Colorado’s top-flight forward returned to the lineup following thumb surgery in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final against Tampa Bay on Wednesday and scored the overtime game-winner that gave the Avalanche a 3-2 win, and a 3-1 series lead.
Now Colorado has a chance to clinch the organization’s first Cup victory since 2001 on home ice in Game 5 on Friday. And Kadri, in the first Cup Final game of his career, helped make it happen.
“It was a rollercoaster of emotions,” Kadri said. “Just thinking I was done and having a sliver of hope, and then sitting here right now is kind of surreal. I just was excited to join the team again and be in the dressing room. This is what I’ve been waiting for my entire life, so it certainly was exciting to get back into the lineup.”
Kadri became the ninth player in NHL history to score an overtime goal in his Cup Final debut, and the first to ever do it after a series’ Game 1. He finished Game 4 with two shots on net in 18:39 TOI.
Wednesday was Kadri’s first action since he was boarded by Evander Kane in Game 3 of Western Conference Final in Edmonton on June 4. Kadri required surgery on his thumb after the play (for which Kane earned a one-game suspension) and only resumed shooting pucks earlier this week.
Despite feeling good enough to come back, Kadri looked hesitant to fire the puck early in Game 4. He didn’t register a shot through the first two periods but seemed to get more confident as time wore on. His game-winner came after several good chances — and a couple hit posts — for Colorado, who were dominant possession-wise for much of the extra frame.
“I was trying to go far side,” Kadri said of his goal. “I knew I got a pretty good shot off and might have had a chance. I actually thought it was in originally, and then he kind of fooled me there and I thought it maybe [was] pinned between his arm. He was kind of swimming in the crease. I thought he had it, so it certainly was a few seconds of confusion there. And then I just saw everybody bull rush the ice and that’s when I knew it was confirmed. Certainly, a team effort on the goal, and it feels nice to get it done.”
Kadri was having a successful playoff before his thumb issue, tallying six goals and 14 points in 13 games. That was after Kadri put together a career regular season (27 goals and 89 points in 71 games) that produced high expectations for his performance in Colorado’s Cup run.
Kadri’s determination to appear in the Cup Final was evident to everyone monitoring his recovery. Given all that’s at stake though, Bednar had to be sure Kadri wouldn’t be a liability.
“I want to know more than just him telling the trainers he’s ready to go,” Bednar said. “I want to know what he’s able to do, what he can’t do, if anything, how he’s feeling about it, making sure that he’s confident he can come back and help. I don’t want him in if he can’ t play the right way and accomplish what we need to accomplish. He was pretty sure, I liked how his skates have gone, so obviously we want a player of his caliber in the lineup.”
What Bednar wasn’t surprised by that Kadri’s return ultimately produced a series-shifting climax.
“It’s the Stanley Cup Final; you know he’s going to go out there and give it his all,” Bednar said. “And he has the ability to win you hockey games in moments like that. There’s no question why we wanted him in.”
While Game 4 had a positive ending for Colorado it didn’t look to be trending that way early on.
It took Tampa Bay only 36 seconds to go up 1-0 over the Avalanche on the weirdest goal this series has seen.
The Lightning had good offensive zone pressure early when Erik Cernak fired a shot on Darcy Kuemper that knocked the goaltender’s mask right off. Kuemper then couldn’t get across to stop Anthony Cirelli’s ensuing play that put Tampa Bay on the board.
Normally when a goalie’s mask comes off there’s an immediate whistle but, in this case, because there was an ongoing scoring chance, play was allowed to continue.
Both sides traded chances from there, with Colorado overcoming two deficits to force overtime. Colorado hit multiple posts there and could have become frustrated seeing nothing get through. Kadri would not be denied. And so the Avalanche head home for Game 5 with one goal in mind: Hoisting the Cup.
“It says a lot [about] what we already know, [that he’s] a super resilient human being,” Nathan MacKinnon, who scored a power play goal in Game 4, said of Kadri. “[It was] a great boost for us to get that guy back. I thought he looked really good tonight, he made a lot of good plays and just seemed to have one great shot on net.”