TAMPA, Fla. — Nazem Kadri and the postseason, for good or for bad, will always go together. He knows his reputation will always carry three playoff suspensions, two with Toronto and one with Colorado, all three of which might have prevented his team from advancing. But now there’s more to Kadri’s postseason legacy than the painful, costly moments. There’s glory, resilience and, as of Wednesday night, one of the biggest goals in Colorado Avalanche history.
Thumb surgery earlier this month put Kadri’s postseason — and the rest of his Avalanche tenure, given his status as a pending unrestricted free agent — in question. But the center worked his way back and, with the Avalanche looking to take a 3-1 series lead in the Stanley Cup Final, received an overtime pass from Artturi Lehkonen entering the offensive zone. He darted forward, shifted to his left, past Mikhail Sergachev, and wristed the puck into the top of the net.
With that, the Avalanche had a 3-2 win, bringing them within one win of hockey’s ultimate prize.
— Colorado Avalanche (@Avalanche) June 23, 2022
“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,” captain Gabriel Landeskog said of Kadri. “You can’t make that stuff up.”
It’s the type of play you remember for life. Every detail.
Everyone froze, but the youngest player on the ice knew Kadri had scored. Bowen Byram, who’d hit the crossbar with a shot earlier in overtime, saw the top of the net flex as puck hit twine, and he sprinted through the neutral zone, right toward the official, pointing excitedly. He was right. It was a goal.
One No. 91 collided with another. Edmonton was a minute into hosting its first Western Conference finals game since 2006 when winger Evander Kane, still this postseason’s leader in goals, used his stick to force Kadri headfirst into the boards.
Kadri went down hard. He didn’t get up. His thumb was hurt, and he thought he was done.
“Roller coaster of emotions, thinking I was done, then having a sliver of hope,” he said after his Game 4 goal. “Sitting here right now is kind of surreal.”
Landeskog had just sat down on the bench, legs tired, when he looked up and saw Kadri on a partial breakaway. Then the puck disappeared. Some Avalanche players on the bench, including Logan O’Connor, were confident Kadri had scored. But Landeskog waited, not wanting to celebrate until he saw the puck. When he did, he rushed onto the ice, helping pin Kadri against the glass. Their heads bounced together in celebration.
Two days after the Kane hit, TSN posted a report of Kadri’s surgery on Instagram, saying he was unlikely to return before the end of the postseason. The Avalanche center saw the post and, always confident, left a comment.
“Ya we’ll see..”
After the June 6 surgery, the sense was that the team would be able to evaluate a potential Kadri return two weeks post-operation. Until then, he skated with skills coach Shawn Allard, adding a stick to his routine last week.
Kadri got closer and closer, and on June 21, the day before Game 4, took the ice with his teammates for an optional practice.
“Naz is a big-time player for us,” teammate Mikko Rantanen said. “It’s nice to see him back on the ice and working again.”
Vasilevskiy, the greatest goalie of his generation, didn’t argue. He turned around and watched, eyes wide, as Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos dislodged the puck. The netminder stood slowly, skated off the ice, and then walked out of the arena, an undone light blue tie around his neck.
Avalanche coach Jared Bednar wanted to talk to Kadri. He didn’t just want to hear the trainers say the center was ready.
“I wanted 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,” the coach said. “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, liked how his skates have gone. So obviously we want a player of his caliber in the lineup.”
Kadri said he had a good sense Tuesday that he’d play, then the team reached an official decision Wednesday morning.
Ismo Lehkonen, whose son, Artturi, assisted the goal, watched on a TV monitor from the Amalie Arena media room. A broadcaster for Finnish television, he was in Tampa from the game, and he “wondered what the heck people were doing.” When Ismo realized Kadri had scored, he viewed it as a reward: Artturi and Kadri, the primary assister on the goal and scorer, had both worked hard all game. They stuck with their process, even after getting outplayed in the first period and even when posts and Vasilevskiy robbed the Avalanche of a win earlier in the overtime period.
“Just keep working,” said Ismo, who was a longtime Finnish coach. “Trust your system. Trust your skating. Trust every part of it.”
Kadri was one of the last Avalanche players to join pregame warm-ups, and he tried out a light shot almost immediately after taking the ice. He deflected questions about his ability to shoot and how healthy he was, saying only that he felt “good enough.”
But he clearly wasn’t 100 percent, battling the ice — which he called “kind of garbage” during an ESPN interview at first intermission — and at times the puck, especially in the first period. He looked tentative, both with his shot and going into the boards.
At game’s end, though, he had played nearly 19 minutes, and the Avalanche had 77 percent of the expected goals when he was on the ice, according to Natural Stat Trick.
“I thought it was good, start to finish,” Bednar said.
Watching from Denver, Ashley Kadri, Nazem’s wife, thought Vasilevskiy had the puck tucked under his arm. And in London, Ontario, where Nazem grew up, his close friend Jason McNeil ran around his living room until his TV showed the puck was in the net. “Then nearly jumped through the floor,” he said. He immediately booked flights to Denver for Game 5.
It feels almost fitting that Kadri’s biggest postseason moment came with a dash of controversy. After the game, Lightning coach Jon Cooper abruptly left midway through his first answer, too upset to speak. He implied Kadri’s goal shouldn’t have counted.
Too many men? Stanley Cup Final gets a dose of controversy with disputed #Avalanche OT goal
— Michael Russo (@RussoHockey) June 23, 2022
After Cooper’s comments, it became clear that Tampa Bay felt there were too many men on the ice. The league’s hockey operations department put out a statement shortly after, saying “each of the four officials advised that they did not see a too-many-men-on-the-ice situation on the play.”
“I’m not quite sure what he’s thinking, why it shouldn’t have counted,” Kadri said. “That kind of confuses me a little bit. The puck hit the back of the net.”
And that’s what mattered, for the Avalanche.
“End of story,” he said.
Kadri thought the puck was in. Then he didn’t. He had tried to go far side, and he knew he’d gotten a good shot off. But judging by Vasilevskiy’s reaction in the crease, he thought the goalie had pinned the puck between his arm and body. The confusion ended when he saw his teammates rush toward him. He’d worked for moments like these.
“This,” he said, “is what I’ve been waiting for my whole life.”
(Photo: Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today)