Hockey fans around the world can rejoice that we got the Stanley Cup Finals we all deserve by surviving the pandemic, a dynamic showdown between the two clearly best teams in the league this year. But all good things must end, and the Colorado Avalanche are on the verge of their first title since 1996 after Nazem Kadri had his Kirk Gibson moment and scored a controversial overtime winner on his return to action.
Midway through the series, we have some observations where the flash is juxtaposed with the proverbial music.
The controversy over Kadri’s winner shouldn’t ruin his moment
Not wanting to let anything ruin the pinnacle of his career, Nazem Kadri immediately underwent thumb surgery with the aim of eventually returning to the final. It took Kadri 18 days to recover from the injury – and let’s face it, he’s certainly struggling with the lingering effects of the disease. Kadri received a picture-perfect ending to the saga on Wednesday night, throwing the match winner into the top of the net and it took officials a few uneasy seconds to locate the puck.
In the midst of the best season of his career, Kadri just wants to contribute to the Avalanche’s goal of lifting an elusive trophy, but of course his moment in the sun was riddled with controversy. Lightning head coach Jon Cooper, perhaps aided by Twitter’s video detectives, firmly stated that Kadri’s goal with six Avalanche skaters on the ice should have been knocked over when Nathan MacKinnon took his time hopping the boards. We’re sure Kadris Tor will be viewed like the Zapruder film in parts of South Florida.
“This one will sting a lot more than others, just because it attacked it was potential. I do not know. It’s hard for me. It will be difficult for me to speak. I will have to speak. … You’ll see what I mean when you see the winning goal. And my heart beats for the players. Because we probably should still be playing,” Cooper said after the game before exiting the podium without asking any more questions.
As expected, Kadri disagreed with Cooper’s assessment:
Cooper is an exceptionally smart guy, he’s one of the best coaches in the league and he certainly knows how to work a room. Pretending that MacKinnon’s infraction was a glaring problem affecting gameplay, rather than a routine event never reported, is an act of retroactive gimmick at best and futile at worst. And whether the goal is recalled is perhaps immaterial when discussing Kadri’s Finale debut.
Kadri excelled on his return, with the Avalanche holding a 78.63 percent goals expected percentage in 5-on-5 while he was on the ice and in over 14 minutes alongside Gabriel Landeskog and Valeri Nichushkin Colorado beat Tampa Bay 17-0. 10 via Natural Stat Trick. Despite barely being able to put power behind his shot, Kadri outwitted Mikhail Sergachev with a fantastic deke and still had the composure to beat Andrei Vasilevskiy, who made countless stunning saves to keep the Lightning’s hopes alive.
“I’ve been waiting for this my whole life, so I thought I’d stop waiting and try to join the party,” Kadri said after the game.
Welcome to the party, Naz. You may have a much bigger celebration in store for you on Friday night.
Makar and Toews reacted strongly to their worst game of the playoffs
By some margin, Cale Makar and Devon Toews have established themselves as the best defensive pairing in the league, the former winning the Norris Trophy while the latter would be a ban for Team Canada in any best-on-best competition. Makar will almost certainly add Conn Smythe to his trophy case if the Avalanche win the series, and Game 4 was an encouraging sign from Colorado’s star duo as they played their worst game of the playoffs in the Game 3 loss.
Makar and Toews were both on the ice for four goals — three on power play — and they weren’t just casual passengers, either. Makar let Anthony Cirelli blow past him, then Toews failed to pick him up on Tampa’s first goal. Toews carelessly threw the puck through the middle of the ice, the led directly to Ondrej Palat’s goal and both players consistently failed to crack forward. Though their underlying numbers suggested some of it was bad luck, the Avalanche needed an answer, and it delivered.
It didn’t always look like this. Cirelli beat the Makar-Toews pairing at 36 seconds into Game 4, won a loose puck in front of the net as the Avalanche pedestrians stood. This could potentially have snowballed, but Makar found his footing on the power play, where he plays quarterback like Russell Wilson and does a variety of improvisations at the blue line that only he can. MacKinnon’s power play got the Avalanche back on track, Makar and Toews paid more attention to Lightning forwards chasing rebounds and controlled play for the rest of the game.
Toews, who was particularly poor in Game 3, responded with four goals, three individual chances and a team-best 66.18 Corsi For share in 5-on-5 while playing for 32 minutes in all situations. For his part, Makar added three goals, three individual chances while recording the win for 34 minutes while playing a game high for 34 minutes and 43 seconds.
Makar is in pretty good company too.
Makar and Toews have far outstripped Victor Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev and Ryan McDonagh throughout the series, and with another standout performance like the three Avalanche wins, the league’s best defensive pair will be champions.
Tampa Bay Is Lagging Towards The Finish Line, Is It Still In The Tank?
It’s quite difficult to quantify the physical toll that three consecutive Cup runs take on a team, so it might be easier to just list the running injury report.
Brayden Point is out for the Lightning with an undisclosed injury, having played in the first two games of the finals after missing the second and third rounds entirely with a lower body injury. Erik Cernak limped away and lost weight on his left foot after blocking a Nathan MacKinnon shot in the second half of Game 4 and returned to the bench for the third half but ultimately didn’t take another shift. Cernak is third this playoff with 42 blocked shots while teammate Ryan McDonagh leads the league with 62 blocked shots and is likely to increase his game time in Game 5.
Anthony Cirelli headed into the dressing room after his arm was injured by teammate Alex Killorn’s skate blade and although he was able to return for the final few frames, he was clearly in pain. Nikita Kucherov is still playing through an injury sustained in Game 3, and the Lightning are keenly aware that no one is coming to the rescue.
“Nobody outside the dressing room – you sometimes think you know. You don’t,” lighting captain Steven Stamkos told The Athletic’s Joe Smith. “It’s a challenge for both teams. They’ve got people playing through a lot of stuff right now. Boys just fight.”
Pat Maroon put it more succinctly.
You can’t blame the Lightning for collapsing; The toll of playing through three postseasons, two during the height of a global pandemic, is something to be commended. Colorado plays at a pace that makes life miserable for opponents on a normal day, let alone as it plays through pain and injury. In four games, the Avalanche dominate shot attempts and possession, and getting the puck off them is a pain. We’re not questioning their proven resolve, but do the Lightning have anything left in the tank?
The silent effect of Mikko Rantanen’s playmaking
Cale Makar won the Norris and the Conn Smythe Trophy is coming up. Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Valeri Nichushkin played a perfect Game 2. Nazem Kadri’s return to the final came from the theater of dreams. And somewhere along the line, Mikko Rantanen’s steady playmaking in four games has been overlooked. Regardless of Rantanen and the Avalanche, of course, victory is the only goal. Rantanen quietly recorded eight assists in four games and was an indispensable part of their postseason.
Rantanen has scored in every game against the Oilers, and his combination of speed and power is nearly unmatched – he’s excellent at fending off smaller defenders on the rush, using his acceleration and size as a force field while going to the net. You can’t hide a 1.8m tall, 215lb winger in plain sight and his influence left a lasting impression on the cup final.
The 25-year-old led the Avalanche in the regular season with 92 points and that’s largely due to his ability to generate attacks in a variety of ways. Rantanen generates some of his primary assists by shooting with the express aim of creating a ricochet. Below are two examples:
The final’s first goal is the result of Rantanen’s aggressive shooting to generate attack. Bowen Byram enters the zone with a steamhead and deals the puck to Rantanen. Byram keeps running and attracts the attention of Ryan McDonagh, who accidentally shields Andrei Vasilevskiy while trying to pick up the falling defender. Rantanen can whip the puck at real speed and it trickles through Vasilevskiy, who fails to account for Landeskog on the rebound. If that seems simplistic, there is further evidence that Rantanen’s intentions were intentional.
Often stationed outside the faceoff circle on the power play, Rantanen helps orchestrate MacKinnon’s goal in Game 4. Makar’s attempted shot bounces off the boards at MacKinnon, who picks up the pick and steers away from a halfhearted stick check from Nick Paul. Two more Lightning defenders meet MacKinnon, who cross-ices a pass over to Rantanen. MacKinnon keeps moving his feet and almost slips into the crease while Paul, Cernak and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare stand idly by. Rantanen aims right off Vasilevskiy’s block and despite MacKinnon not getting a stick on the puck, he gets off his skate and in, the Lightning bumping into the crowd.
Here’s another one. Rantanen can play an excellent East-West game, but he’s excellent in the cycle and can capitalize on turnovers. Rantanen provides some puck support for JT Compher, expecting his linemate to put the puck deep in the zone, but he’s patient and it pays off. Instead of converging on Ondrej Palat, Rantanen seals the wall and blocks the fast lane. Palat instinctively tries to pass it to Hedman, but Rantanen rushes in and immediately fires it at Nichushkin, who comes in for his second goal of Game 2. It’s a heads-up game that looks easy on review, but takes a keen eye for the net, along with superior talent, to pull it off.
Makar and Rantanen both have 20 assists in the postseason, one of them getting all the accolades he deserves, but for the other it’s business as usual. Rantanen has been an integral part of the Avalanche’s rise from doormat to powerhouse, and he engages his teammates in numerous ways throughout the finals.
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