TAMPA, Fla. – The game that had brought the Colorado Avalanche to the prize of winning their first Stanley Cup in over two decades had ended a minute or two earlier, and the Hockey Hall of Famer at the back of the Amalie Arena’s freight elevator stared straight ahead as he descended the seven ramps to ice level.
His face betrayed no hint of what he had just witnessed – the record vanishing, the confusion that reigned, the euphoria that followed – or what it meant to him, the man who assembled the behemoth of these playoffs. NHL.
Before Game 4 of the finals on Wednesday night, it was he, Joe Sakic, now general manager of Avalanche, who scored the most memorable goal of the franchise in this millennium. He handed that distinction – fortunately, presumably – to Nazem Kadri, whose running shot fooled everyone, including lightning keeper Andrei Vasilevskiy, the table officials, and a home crowd in Tampa not accustomed to silence.
When it was finally spotted on the net, the puck offered confirmation not only of Colorado’s 3-2 overtime win, but also a general truth of this series and postseason. The Lightning might have the good faith and tenacity of a two-time defending champion, but Colorado were the top team.
The Avalanche played 18 playoff games and won 15. They invaded Nashville, St. Louis and Edmonton – sweeping round one and three – before prevailing three times against the Lightning, two in extra time, dominating both halves. additional. Their speed, skill and special teams – seven goals against Tampa Bay’s – overwhelmed Tampa Bay, just as Sakic had hoped they would make it into the series. On Wednesday, Kadri and five players acquired over the past year – and three before the trade deadline, in Andrew Cogliano, Nico Sturm and Artturi Lehkonen – combined six points on the draw and winning goals.
Colorado can hoist the Cup with another win, as soon as Friday night in Denver, where in the comforts of high altitude Avalanche beat the Lightning 11-3 in Race 1 and 2.
“Of course, they’re probably preaching, ‘They’ve never been here; They’ll be tight, ‘and that’s right, “Colorado star center Nathan MacKinnon said.” But we’ll be good to go. We’ve been fantastic under pressure throughout the playoffs, all season. “
MacKinnon is right, by all accounts. Perennial contenders, Colorado hadn’t played for the Cup since 2001, when Sakic scored the decisive goal in Game 7 against the Devils, or in the conference finals since 2002. This despite making it to the Presidents’ Trophy last season, for having had the NHL’s best record, despite boasting a dreaded collection of talent, including MacKinnon, whose steps should be measured by a seismograph, striker Mikko Rantanen and Norris Trophy-winning defender Cale Makar, whose comparisons to Bobby Orr might seem like a sacrilege if they weren’t so amazing.
Sometimes, though, in the grueling chase for a Cup, teams benefit from luck, chance and circumstances and a boundless pain tolerance: from taking on minor goalkeepers in the first three rounds to Kadri’s surgically repaired right thumb which regains enough functionality to deserve his return to training after three weeks of absence.
“Just the thought of being done and then having a shred of hope, sitting here right now, is a little surreal,” said Kadri, adding, “This is what I’ve been waiting for pretty much my whole life.”
In Game 4 of their second-round triumph against St. Louis, Kadri scored a hat-trick just hours after receiving racist death threats from fans over a collision that knocked Blues goalkeeper Jordan Binnington out of the series. In another Game 4 on Wednesday, Kadri finished a sequence that began with a gentle pass from goalkeeper Darcy Kuemper – who, sensing the lightning was tired, knew he was pushing the puck on the ice – and overtook Vasilevskiy. Or so it seemed.
For a few seconds, no one celebrated, in a moment that conjured up another disappointing winner of the extra-time match from the finals, scored by Chicago’s Patrick Kane in 2010 to take the title over Philadelphia. Then Kadri began to nod, the bench began to empty and the Lightning began ice skating, their hopes for a third consecutive title in jeopardy.
Even to reach this stage, they had to outlive the two highest-scoring teams in the league, Toronto and Florida, and overcome a 2-0 series disadvantage against Rangers, all while starting each away series. To extend this, Lightning must suffocate an unholy trinity of disappointments: losing in extra time, at home, on a goal they believed shouldn’t have counted.
Entering his post-match press conference, Tampa Bay manager Jon Cooper looked like he needed a strong drink, a hug, or some alone time in a soundproofed room with the referee crew – or all. and three, really. He answered a question before apologizing, sounding defeated as he praised his team’s accomplishments in an era of wage cap suffocating would-be dynasties before veering into a cryptic response that challenged the legitimacy of Kadri’s goal.
“This is going to sting a lot more than others,” Cooper said, adding, “You’ll see what I mean when you see the goal of winning. And my heart breaks for the players. Because we should probably still play.”
As he reiterated Thursday, Cooper, a former lawyer, argued, based on replays bouncing on social media, that Colorado had too many men on the ice when Kadri scored, that MacKinnon stayed too long, too far off the Avalanche bench, when Kadri jumped on. The league, in a statement released Thursday morning by its hockey operations department, said none of the officials considered it a violation and that the call was not subject to video review.
Though he said Thursday that the team must move forward, Cooper did not mention, of course, that the Lightning benefited from a similar missed call last season, when they appeared to have had an extra player on the ice for the goal the Islanders did. ousted in Game 7 of their semifinal series. In hockey, if not in life, these moments tend to equalize, and neither the interpretation of a rule nor the whims of a puck could minimize Colorado’s authority in extra time, when they have risked scoring on many other occasions.
According to Natural Stat Trick, the Avalanche recorded 75 more total hits at uniform strength than the Lightning. They have 11 other high-risk scoring chances. They pushed Tampa Bay through the neutral zone and between the hoops and under the goal line.
That’s how they’ve won all season, all post-season, and unless Tampa Bay can conjure up one last push – and then another, and then another – the next time Sakic steps down from. a lift to the ice, it will be to lift the Stanley Cup.