The Colorado Avalanche are on the verge of achieving their immense potential after a storybook, albeit controversial, ending to Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final.
After missing the first three games of the series in recovery from a surgically-repaired thumb, Nazem Kadri scored in overtime on a partial breakaway to vault the Avalanche to a 3-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning, moving Colorado within one win of hoisting the Stanley Cup.
Kadri’s magnificent and unlikely winner spoiled a brilliant performance from Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, who had to that point thwarted an inspired effort from the Avalanche with 35 saves in the game, including 10 in overtime.
It was the only clean goal scored on Vasilevskiy on a night where the Avalanche had to find other means. The Avalanche twice tied the game before Kadri provided his team with his first and only lead, with Nathan MacKinnon scoring his first goal of the series on a fortunate deflection and Nico Sturm using a lucky bounce, too, to register his first of the playoffs.
Vasilevskiy’s counterpart, Darcy Kuemper, was also busy, making 37 saves. His only blemishes came on goals from Anthony Cirelli and Victor Hedman.
Kuemper also contributed offensively, moving the puck up the ice to earn a second assist on Kadri’s winner.
Which leads us to the controversy we weren’t aware of until Jon Cooper briefly and emotionally met with reporters, before offering a bizarre cliffhanger.
The Lightning head coach promised in his session with the media that we would see proof that the Bolts should have “still been playing” once Kadri’s winner was reviewed under a more critical lens.
And, although not immediately clear, it would be pointed out that after Kuemper pushed the puck back up ice and it found the stick of Kadri, one Avalanche player — MacKinnon — had not completed his change.
By the letter of law, Cooper — the former attorney — has a valid point with six Avalanche skaters on the ice, possessing the puck. And for that reason, Lightning fans will be feeling aggrieved by something they wouldn’t have noticed without Cooper’s theatrics, while Avalanche fans and most others will argue that MacKinnon’s failure to hop over the boards really had no bearing on the play.
Upon even closer examination, it looked like the Lightning had extras on the ice, too, as both teams worked to complete changes.
It’s worth taking in Cooper’s entire post-game presser, which included a lengthy and dramatic preface before delivering his point.
What Cooper’s remarks shouldn’t distract from is the night’s most important headline, which is Kadri hitting the apex on his personal redemption arc.
Hockey folks were heartbroken for Kadri when the talented forward, who finally was able to keep his emotions in check on the postseason stage after several consecutive seasons of letting his teams down with dirty and punishable plays, was injured on a reckless shove from Evander Kane in the Western Conference Final.
There was no promise that Kadri would be able to suit up in the NHL’s championship series, let alone contribute at a high level. And after a bit of a slow start to the game, and some clear deferral on his part while nursing a presumably cumbersome protection on his thumb, it appeared as though Kadri may have not been able to provide a boost.
Of course, Kadri grew into the game before pulling a brilliant move on Mikhail Sergachev to create the scoring opportunity used to tuck the puck under Vasilevskiy’s arm and into the roof of the net.
With Kadri back, and Tampa’s comeback story with Brayden Point failing to bear fruit, the Avalanche are clearly the fresher and more complete team.
And now they have three chances to clinch the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in 21 years, with the first coming Friday night in Denver.
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