TAMPA — Never mind the fact Nazem Kadri had difficulty shooting at anything near full capacity.
That didn’t prevent the Colorado Avalanche star from emerging from the press box to deliver the most important goal of his career on Wednesday night, beating Andrei Vasilevskiy with a perfect shot that found the microscopic space between the blocker and under the right armpit of the all-world goalie of the Tampa Bay Lightning at 12:02 of the first overtime.
The shot wasn’t a change up, but it wasn’t at full throttle either.
It was a slightly rolling puck that went off the end of the blade of Kadri’s stick, fooling Vasilevskiy and giving the Avalanche a commanding 3-1 series lead after a 3-2 victory at Amalie Arena.
“Oh man, a roller-coaster of emotions,” said Kadri, speaking to members of the media for the first time since Game 3 of the Western Conference Final. “Just thinking I was done and then having a sliver of hope (after surgery).
“Sitting here right now, it’s kind of surreal. I’m just excited to join the team again and be in the dressing room. This is what I’ve been waiting for my whole life pretty much.”
The simple presence of Kadri in the lineup was going to be enough to provide an emotional lift for the Avalanche.
That he authored the signature moment in this pivotal game was truly something to behold.
“Gutsy performance, you know? Put in a lot of work to make sure that he could not only come back and play, but he could come back and perform to the best of his ability with the injury he had,” said Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar. “It’s not easy to do, turning around an injury like that. It just shows you how dedicated he was.”
The dedication of Kadri was never in question.
This was always going to be a matter of when, not if, he returned for the Stanley Cup Final.
“You know he wasn’t going to go down easy. It’s an inspiration to everybody else to see a teammate like that try to come back and fight every day to try to get better and finally he’s back in the lineup,” said Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog. “No doubt it was exciting for us and gave us a different look. You can’t make that stuff up. Big in overtime and it’s great to see.”
Kadri made a nifty move to get to the inside and while he was pretty sure the shot had beaten Vasilevskiy, there was a moment when he questioned whether or not the game was over.
“I was trying to go far side. You know I knew I got a pretty good shot off and it might have had a chance,” said Kadri. “I actually thought it was in originally, but then Vasilevskiy kind of fooled me there. I thought it maybe pinned between his arm. He was kind of swimming in the crease and I thought he might have had it.
“It was certainly a few seconds of confusion there and then I just saw everybody bull rush the ice. That’s when I knew it was confirmed. It feels nice to get it done.”
Kadri was asked a question about the cryptic suggestion by Lightning head coach Jon Cooper that the play should have been blown dead for an illegal change 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. That kind of confuses me a little bit,” said Kadri. “The puck hit the back of the net, end of story. I’m not sure why he’d say that.”
Based on his progression over the course of the past week, Kadri was able to build himself up to this point and eventually he convinced Bednar that it was time to put him back in.
“He’s been building toward it,” said Bednar. “Lots of talk with the trainers, mostly. And then when he’s thinking about it and getting close the last couple of days, then I talked to him. 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 calibre in the lineup.”
Kadri didn’t disappoint, even if it took him a while to get acclimated to the pace of the game, which is difficult to do when entering a series with the intensity of this one, knowing what was at stake for both teams.
With the thumb injury he’s battling through, Kadri was used at left wing with Valeri Nichushki on the right and Landeskog shifting to centre and taking all of the responsibilities in the faceoff circle.
By the time the night was complete and the celebration was winding down, Kadri had taken 26 shifts for 18:42 of ice time, recording two shots on goal and five shot attempts while adding one hit.
“It says a lot (about) what we already know,” said MacKinnon. “A super resilient human being, a great boost for us to get that guy back.”
Now that he’s got his legs under him after missing the previous four games with an injury he sustained in Game 3 of the last round against the Edmonton Oilers when Evander Kane pushed him into the boards from behind, Kadri figures to continue to make an impact.
This was a gutsy performance from the Avalanche, who rallied to win despite giving up a goal 36 seconds into the contest by Anthony Cirelli and getting badly outshot by a 17-4 margin (though the shot attempts were 23-22 for Tampa Bay).
MacKinnon scored his first goal of the series and shared a laugh with a reporter when the subject was broached.
Oddly enough, it was not a one-timer or a highlight-reel special, but instead a shot from Mikko Rantanen went off the pad of Vasilevskiy and caromed in off the skate of MacKinnon.
Finally the engine of the Avalanche offence was on the board and you can be sure that brought with it a sense of relief.
Speaking of relief, the determined play of Darcy Kuemper was a major storyline as well, with the Avalanche goalie supplying 37 saves after he was pulled from Game 3 (giving up five goals on 22 shots on goal).
Not only did Kuemper go toe-to-toe with Vasilevskiy, he got the play started on the overtime winner, making a perfect pass on the zone exit to Artturi Lehkonen, who sprung Kadri in for the shot that sealed the deal.
“I just thought he battled. I mean, I never doubt his care, his try,” said Bednar. “I think, you go through our lineup, there are guys who have had bad games in the playoffs. It’s just so much more magnified when it’s a goalie, because he’s your last line of defence.”
The Stanley Cup will be in the building on Friday night and the Avalanche now have three cracks at winning it for the first time since 2001.
This group has been locked in on a singular goal since training camp and has made a habit of eliminating the narratives surrounding previous playoff disappointments, one by one.
This next one is going to be the stiffest one yet, but one of the leaders of this Avalanche squad made it clear they were not about to be overwhelmed by this moment.
“We’ve just got to stay with it and do what we’ve been doing all season. That’s what we’re going to preach,” said MacKinnon. “Obviously, they’re probably preaching ‘they’ve never been here, they’re going to be tight’ and that’s fair. But we’ll be ready to go. We’ve been great under pressure all playoffs, all season.”