TAMPA, Fla. — The Nazem Kadri watch is reaching a crescendo.
Although Colorado Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar wasn’t ready to confirm — or deny — the status of his second-line centre going into the fourth game of the Stanley Cup Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
But Kadri, who has been out of the lineup since suffering a broken thumb in Game 3 of the Western Conference Final against the Edmonton Oilers, was a full participant during the morning skate — which was the next step in the process.
Kadri has six goals and 14 points in 13 games during the playoffs and would immediately provide a two-way boost to the Avalanche lineup that has been forced to lean on its forward depth, especially with Andre Burakovsky set to miss a second consecutive game with what is believed to be a hand injury.
“This time of the year guys are battling," said Avalanche forward Mikko Rantanen. "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. And Naz is a big-time player for us. So it’s nice to see him back on the ice and working again.”
Kadri has been skating regularly since having surgery to repair his thumb, and he added shooting to his repertoire earlier this week, though he hasn’t been fully unloading his shots to this point.
What would it take for Kadri to get back into the lineup?
"He’s getting better every day," said Bednar. "Well, if he can do all the functions that it takes to play a hockey game and is feeling comfortable with it, he's a guy we'll put back in. He's been skating, legs feel good. It's just about managing, I guess, the pain he's dealing with."
Another clue may have been provided when Avalanche forward Nicolas Aube-Kubel stayed on after the morning skate for extra work, a task normally assigned to the scratches.
Bednar wasn’t interested in confirming his starting goalie either, though Darcy Kuemper was in the starter’s net and Pavel Francouz stayed on late.
Kuemper was pulled in Game 3 after giving up five goals on 22 shots on goal, departing at 11:15 of the second period.
Several Avalanche players went out of their way to say they needed to be better defensively in front of Kuemper, and they’re expecting him to provide a bounce-back effort in Game 4.
“We have lots of belief, you know. He’s been our starter all year,” said Rantanen. “We have two good goalies and Darcy’s our starter, and we rally with him all the way. I think everybody has a good confidence in him this time of the year.
"In our team, everybody has a role and duty all the playoffs. When you play a game that you wish you did not play, you get over it right away and if you play a great game you get over it as well quickly. So that’s really important in a series like this.”
Speaking of goaltending, Lightning netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy was back looking like his old self in Game 3 after giving up seven goals in Game 2, so the Avalanche understand they’ll need to do a better job of creating traffic in front of him.
“Our team's done a nice job for the entire season of trying to get into the interior of the ice to create quality chances, of mixing that in with shooting mentality and sending guys to the net,” said Bednar. "I feel like we have a pretty balanced attack, both off the rush and in the offensive zone [and on] the power play as well. And I don't think it really changes. I think, like I said, if you're playing a hot goalie, you have to make sure you're getting quality looks and you have to make sure you're getting enough quantity as well.
“So, there's a balance there that we found with our group, and we'll have to check tighter than we did in Game 3 to make sure we're limiting their opportunities and you have to keep creating quality looks of your own. I thought we did that in Game 3 almost as well as we did in Game 2. We didn't shoot as well, (so) we need a better night (there)."
KUCHEROV STAYS IN, POINT STAYS OUT
Early in this final, the difference-maker suffered a setback in his recovery from an undisclosed lower-body injury that kept him out for the past two rounds.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper has not ruled Point out for the series, but he will miss a second straight game Wednesday.
Tampa’s other hobbled forwards, Game 3 hero Nick Paul and Nikita Kucherov, will suit up and push through the pain.
There was plenty of concern over Kucherov after seeing him cross-checked into the boards by Devon Toews late in Game 3.
“That kid, if you watch last year’s playoff and everybody knows him, what he went through to finish, it’s remarkable. So, I never count that kid out,” Cooper said.
“I’m not saying they’re all fine. They’re going to be playing. I think I can speak for Beds, too, that everybody’s banged up this time of year.”
Toews served a minor penalty for the illegal hit but was not called to the mat for supplementary discipline.
“He's a good player, and I’m trying to play him tight,” Toews explained. “If he got hurt on it, it's unfortunate. I'm not trying to hurt anyone out here. I'm just trying to play him tight and not let him have the time and space to make plays.”
MAKAR WINS NORRIS
Avalanche defenceman Cale Makar collected the first Norris Trophy of his career Tuesday night, inching out Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators in the voting done by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association.
Makar has blossomed into a two-way force, notching 28 goals and 86 points during the regular season, and he’s carried that strong offensive push into these playoffs, leading the Avalanche with 26 points in 17 games.
“Obviously (I'm) very honoured to just be in the consideration for that award … but for me, I've got to kind of turn the page quick here and get ready for tomorrow,” Makar told reporters on Tuesday, before praising Josi and Lightning D-man Victor Hedman for helping him raise his own game. “They're such incredible players. They pushed me so hard throughout the season, just as an individual on ice. It's amazing to go up against those guys. There's a lot of credit that goes to them in terms of the success that I had personally this year.
"I'm still pretty young, so having this playoff experience at an early age is very exciting for me. You just try to kind of take it all in. At the end of the day, it's step by step. Being able to experience what we have right now as a team, it's only going to make us stronger in the future regardless of what happens. But we're focused on obviously winning right now.”
It was the first time a member of the Avalanche captured the award for the top defenceman in the NHL.
“I don’t know, obviously I’m biased, but the credit and the talk around him here, especially even in the playoffs — and I know it’s a regular season award — but we’ve seen him play this way from Day 1 of the season,” said Bednar. “I think he’s a much better player this year than he was last year and you watch the impact that he has on the games that we’ve played and for me, it’s an easy decision.
"And that’s not to take away from any of the other guys that are up for the award because they’re all very good players who had very good seasons, but I just think this guy is elite and with him, the job he does for us offensively and defensively, watching him play, how dynamic he is, he’s just the best defenceman in the game right now.”
Makar has been referred to as a humble superstar on numerous occasions throughout these playoffs and the assessment is an accurate one.
“It's impressive what he's been able to do in such a short time in his career and there is not enough you can say about him,” said Avalanche forward Andrew Cogliano. “I don't think I've seen a focus in a younger player like him in my whole career, how he approaches the game, how he prepares. With him, it is the habits that make him special. (From) the first day I got here, just how he passes the puck, how he moves on the ice, everything he does is with such purpose that he is just unbelievable. It really, really makes him such a dominant player.
“His focus and how he approaches the game and how he goes about his business, I've never seen it before, so that is why I think he is able to do what he has been doing and like I said, I think there is just an energy to him and a focus that makes players and obviously guys like him some of the best to ever play the game and he is one of those players that is going to just continue to get better and scarier as he goes on.”
TAMPA'S PENALTY KILL IS GETTING ROASTED
The Lightning blanked the Avalanche at even-strength in Game 3, but Colorado continues to feast on the man-advantage.
So lopsided is the special-teams battle that Colorado is plus-5 and Tampa is even in odd-man situations.
Fast and ferocious, the top-ranked Avalanche power play is humming at a 33.9 per cent clip this post-season and already has scored five times through three games in this series.
Tampa’s struggling PK (77.9 per cent, 10th among all playoff teams) is getting exploited.
“There are some pucks going in the net. Do we think that we can at least get some more clears, win some more faceoffs, do all these things that can help out? Sure, we can,” Cooper said.
“Hey, gotta tip your hat. [Gabriel] Landeskog’s shot — that’s a hell of a shot. Sometimes you have to say, ‘OK, good on you.’
“We’ve shut down some phenomenal power plays, and we know we can do this. But they have a good power play, and they feed off it. It gives them energy.”
Tampa must move its legs and take fewer penalties because we’re not certain it can kill at the same rate Colorado can.
"The mistakes we make right now are costly, so it’s a bit of a downer when it happens,” penalty-killer Pierre-Edouard Bellmare said. “We have to be more solid in front of the net, more involved.
"Also, when we have a chance to clear to puck, we have to do it. A lot of time you can frustrate the opposing power play just by clearing the puck.”
Here’s how both teams are expected to start tonight:
Gabriel Landeskog-Nathan MacKinnon-Valeri Nichushkin
Artturi Lehkonen-Nazem Kadri-Mikko Rantanen
Andrew Cogliano-J.T. Compher-Logan O’Connor
Alex Newhook-Darren Helm-Nico Sturm
Devon Toews-Cale Makar
Jack Johnson-Josh Manson
Bowen Byram-Erik Johnson
Tampa Bay Lightning
Ondrej Palat-Steven Stamkos-Nikita Kucherov
Brandon Hagel-Anthony Cirelli-Alex Killorn
Ross Colton-Nick Paul-Corey Perry
Pat Maroon-Pierre-Edouard Bellemare-Riley Nash
Victor Hedman-Jan Rutta
Ryan McDonagh-Erik Cernak
Mikhail Sergachev-Zach Bogosian