After Disputed Goal, Avalanche on the Cusp of a Stanley Cup Win

TAMPA, Fla. — The game that led the Colorado Avalanche to the abyss to win their first Stanley Cup in over two decades had ended a minute or two earlier, and the Hockey Hall of Famers behind the freight elevator at the Amalie Arena stared straight ahead as it descended the seven stories to Ice Level.

His face gave nothing of what he’d just witnessed—the puck that disappeared, the confusion that followed, the euphoria that followed—or what it meant to him, the man who put together the juggernaut of this NHL playoff.

Ahead of Game 4 of the Finals on Wednesday night, it was he, Joe Sakic, now the Avalanche’s general manager, who scored the franchise’s most memorable goal of the millennium. He left that honor — presumably fortunately — to Nazem Kadri, whose shot from the onslaught fooled everyone, including Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, the on-ice official, and a home crowd in Tampa unaccustomed to silence.

When the puck was finally spotted on the net, it not only confirmed Colorado’s 3-2 overtime win, but an overarching truth of the series and this postseason. The Lightning may have the credibility and tenacity of a two-time defending champion, but Colorado was the superior team.

The Avalanche have played 18 playoff games and won 15. They swamped Nashville, St. Louis and Edmonton — winning the first and third rounds — before besting the Lightning three times, twice in overtime, and dominating both overtime. Their speed and skill and special teams — seven goals to Tampa Bay’s one — overwhelmed Tampa Bay just like Sakic had hoped they would go into the series. On Wednesday, Kadri and five players added within the last year – and three before the trade deadline, in Andrew Cogliano, Nico Sturm and Artturi Lehkonen – together scored six points for the tie and victory.

Colorado can lift the trophy with another win, back in Denver on Friday night where the Avalanche defeated the Lightning 11-3 in Games 1 and 2 in the comfortable height of a mile.

“Obviously they’re probably preaching, ‘You’ve never been here; They’re going to be tight,’ and that’s fair,” said Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Star Center. “But we will be ready to go. We’ve been under great pressure in all the playoffs and all season.”

MacKinnon is right on every count. Colorado, a perennial contender, hadn’t played for the trophy since 2001, when Sakic scored the deciding goal in Game 7 against the Devils, or since 2002 in the conference finals. That’s despite rolling for the NHL’s Presidents’ Trophy last season, despite boasting a feared roster of talent including MacKinnon, whose strides should be measured by a seismograph, forward Mikko Rantanen and the one with the Norris Trophy-winning defender Cale Makar, whose comparisons to Bobby Orr would seem sacrilegious if they weren’t so striking.

Sometimes, however, teams thrive on luck, coincidence and circumstance, and unlimited pain tolerance in the arduous pursuit of a trophy: from meeting weaker goalies in the first three rounds to Kadri’s surgically repaired right thumb regaining enough function to earning his return lineup after a three-week absence.

“Just thinking I’m done and then having a glimmer of hope sitting here now is kind of surreal,” Kadri said, adding, “It’s pretty much what I’ve been waiting for my whole life.”

In Game 4 of her second-round triumph over St. Louis, Kadri scored a hat-trick just hours after receiving racist death threats from fans over a collision that knocked Blues goalie Jordan Binnington out of the series. In another Game 4 Wednesday, Kadri completed a sequence that began with a sweet pass from goalie Darcy Kuemper — who, sensing Lightning was tired, had the consciousness to shove the puck onto ice — and the puck to Vasilevskiy passed. Or so it seemed.

No one celebrated for a few seconds, in a moment reminiscent of another disappointing overtime winner from the Finals, scored by Chicago’s Patrick Kane in 2010 to lift the title against Philadelphia. Then Kadri started nodding, the bench emptied and the Lightning began slipping off the ice, jeopardizing their hopes of a third straight title.

Even to reach that stage, they had to outlast the league’s two highest scoring teams, Toronto and Florida, and overcome a 2-0 deficit against Rangers while starting each series away from home. To extend that, the Lightning must smother an unholy trinity of disappointments: losing in overtime, at home, at a goal they felt shouldn’t have counted.

As Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper walked into his post-game press conference, it looked like he needed a stiff drink, a hug, or some alone time in a soundproof room with the officiating crew — or all three, really. He took a question before apologizing and sounded dejected as he praised his team’s achievements in an era of salary caps stifling would-be dynasties, before descending into a cryptic response that questioned the legitimacy of Kadri’s goal .

“This one’s going to sting a lot more than others,” Cooper said, adding, “You’ll see what I mean when you see the winning goal. And my heart beats for the players. Because we should probably still be playing.”

As he reiterated Thursday, Cooper, a former attorney, claimed based on replays bounced on social media: that Colorado had too many men on the ice when Kadri scored – that MacKinnon lingered too long, too far from the Avalanche bank when Kadri jumped up. The league said in a statement issued Thursday morning by its division of hockey operations that none of the officials considered it a violation and that the call was not the subject of a video review.

Of course, while he said the team needs to move on Thursday, Cooper never once mentioned that the Lightning benefited from a similar noncall last postseason when they appeared to have an extra player on the ice for the goal that edged out the Islanders Game 7 of their semi-final series. In hockey, if not in life, those moments tend to even out, and neither the interpretation of a rule nor the whims of a puck could diminish Colorado’s authority in overtime when it came close to scoring on many other occasions.

According to the Natural Stat Trick, the Avalanche registered a total of 75 more shots than the Lightning at the same power. You have 11 more high-risk chances to score. They’ve emphasized Tampa Bay through the neutral zone and between the circles and below the goal line.

That’s how they’ve won all season, all postseason, and if Tampa Bay can’t muster one last boost — and then another and another — the next time Sakic takes an elevator down to the ice, the Stanley will get cup .

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