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Avs a win away from the Cup: What we learned in the Game 4 OT thriller

Following two straight blowouts in the 2022 Stanley Cup Final, Game 4 was an absolute thriller between the Colorado Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning.

The game was deadlocked at 2-2 after regulation. Then at 12:02 of overtime, Nazem Kadri scored the game-winning goal — yes, the same Nazem Kadri who was playing in his first game back after breaking his thumb in the Western Conference finals.

What lessons did we learn from this one? And what does it all mean looking ahead to Game 5 on Friday with the Avs one win away from a Stanley Cup?

Kadri’s big comeback

The writing was on the wall after Kadri took morning skate on Wednesday, even if Bednar wouldn’t confirm it at the time: Kadri was a go for Game 4. And he was the overtime hero at that.

The forward hadn’t played since being boarded by Evander Kane and breaking his thumb in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals on June 4. He started skating again shortly after surgery, and Bednar said Kadri’s inclusion in the lineup again depended on pain management more than anything.

Bednar shuffled his lines accordingly to accommodate Kadri’s return, moving Gabriel Landeskog and Valeri Nichushkin off Nathan MacKinnon‘s flanks and onto Kadri’s. Landeskog can take left-side faceoffs for Kadri, and he’s a big body like Nichushkin, so they could insulate Kadri in more ways than one.

It was still quickly clear how far Kadri was from 100%. He didn’t want to — or couldn’t — shoot the puck with his usual force, and was overpassing to compensate, with decreased accuracy. Whether it was nerves or his thumb holding Kadri back, he still tried to make an impact every shift either by throwing his body or just getting in lanes.

When he grabbed the marker that would give Colorado a 3-1 lead in the Cup Final it only felt fitting. Kadri left it all on the line, and the shot he did take — one of only two in the game — was everything Colorado could have hoped for. — Kristen Shilton

Lightning struck

The Lightning didn’t take advantage when they had all the momentum in the first period of Game 4. They didn’t take advantage on their power plays. The longer the game went, the more the rest advantage the Avalanche had before the Stanley Cup Final would come into play. By the time Kadri scored the game-winner, the Lightning were in pure counterpunch mode with the Avalanche carrying much of the play.

Now they face a nearly insurmountable challenge. Teams with a 3-1 lead in a best-of-seven hold an all-time series record of 298-31 (.906), including a 2-1 (.667) clip in 2022 and a 35-1 (.972) mark in the Stanley Cup Final. They’re going back to Colorado where the line-matching advantages they had at home disappear.

It’ll take the heart of a champion for the Lightning to three-peat after this loss. — Greg Wyshynski

Even Steven

Colorado couldn’t have seen that start coming. Darcy Kuemper certainly couldn’t.

It would take Tampa Bay only 36 seconds to go up 1-0 over the Avalanche on the weirdest goal. The Lightning had good offensive zone pressure early when Erik Cernak fired a shot on Kuemper that knocked the goaltender’s mask right off. Kuemper then couldn’t get across to stop Anthony Cirelli‘s ensuing play that put Tampa Bay on the board.

Normally when a goalie’s mask comes off there’s an immediate whistle, but in this case because there was an ongoing scoring chance, play was allowed to continue.

After the early goal, Tampa Bay continued to dominate. Kuemper was under siege as the Lightning outshot Colorado 17-4 through 20 minutes, but he kept the score at 1-0. Nathan MacKinnon finally helped the goalie out with his first goal of the Cup Final, from a Mikko Rantanen pass that went off of MacKinnon’s skate. Either way, the score was knotted.

Victor Hedman gave Tampa Bay back a 2-1 lead they’d take into the third. Nico Sturm set up Andrew Cogliano early in the third to tie the game again.

It was the kind of back-and-forth affair we haven’t seen yet in this series. What we have witnessed is total domination (in 7-0 and 6-2 finals) and one wild overtime ender. This night was more strategic after a messy first period. The momentum swings were real, and weathered well by both sides. It felt like Colorado and Tampa Bay were finally settled in, that they’d figured one another out. After all that, it was only right that the game needed overtime to find a winner.

So, what does that mean for what’s ahead? Are we in for a tightly contested series from here? Or was this the outlier and there are more blow-outs to come? — Shilton

Avs’ special teams domination continues

No, it wasn’t the prettiest power-play goal, as the puck bounced off of Nathan MacKinnon’s skate behind Andrei Vasilevskiy at 5:17 into the second period. But it was another power-play goal for the Avalanche, who have dominated on special teams in this series.

After Game 4, Colorado is now 6-for-13 with the man advantage, a preposterously good conversion rate of 46.2%. The Lightning entered the game with a 77.9% penalty kill rate overall and just 67.9% on home ice.

“They have a good power play and they feed off it. It gives them energy. But we have a good PK and eventually I know the bounces will start going our way at some point, too. I’m not concerned,” coach Jon Cooper said.

That said, it might be time for some concern about the Lightning power play. The Avalanche have killed off 13 of 14 power plays in the series. With the high-scoring talent Tampa Bay has on its power-play unit, that’s unbelievable. Cooper has talked about his penalty as being about “killing them off at the right time.” In the two tightest games of this series — Game 1 and Game 4 — one power-play goal from the Lightning would have made all the difference. — Wyshynski

Need for speed

Colorado took a 2-0 lead in this series because of its speed. There were other factors involved, but that was a big one.

In their first two games at home the Avalanche outskated Tampa Bay all over the ice and were particularly quick through the neutral zone getting to — and taking away — pucks. The Avalache’s quick-twitch rush attack brutalized the Lightning.

Well, that speed wilted in the Florida heat.

Colorado looked closer to skating through sand for the first half of Game 4. Their tenacity and forechecking had stalled. Was it that the Lightning were moving quicker outside Denver’s elevation? Or had something dramatically changed for Colorado?

The Avalanche found their legs more in the third period and overtime. There was a more noticeable jump to their game.

The difficulty getting there is worth monitoring now. Playing fast and up ice has been a hallmark of Colorado’s success. It’s difficult to generate those juicy opportunities off the rush without it. The Lightning were bound to make adjustments, but Colorado can do the same, and add back some of that missing pace. It’ll be especially key now that Tampa Bay has nothing to lose. — Shilton

Hedman’s big move

Last night was a weird night for Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman and Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar. It was the night before Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final and they were dressed in suits at the NHL Awards dinner, held at a local Tampa brewery.

Hedman got all dolled up just to watch Makar win the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman. It was the sixth time Hedman was nominated for the award. He’s only won it once. So there was probably some matter of satisfaction for Hedman in the second period when he scored the kind of goal that Norris Trophy candidacies are made of: Dangling through the neutral zone, then the Avalanche defense, before floating a shot past Kuemper’s blocker side for a 2-1 lead at 10:42 of the period.

Hedman had a strong, active night for the Lightning. It might have been the best game he’s played in the 2022 playoffs as far as making a difference on both ends of the ice.

“You don’t look at the point sheet at this time of year, you look at the win sheet,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how you get it, you just want to get it done.” — Wyshynski

Counting on Kuemper

Kuemper’s confidence could have been lost along with his mask on that first goal.

Colorado’s starter was pulled midway through Game 3 for allowing five goals on 22 shots, and while Jared Bednar gave him the nod for Game 4, Tampa Bay’s fluky first score could have gone right to Kuemper’s head. Instead, it seemed to galvanize the netminder. He was the only thing holding Colorado in the first 20 minutes when the Avalanche were outshot 17-4. He made a notably good save on Steven Stamkos and was sharp on the Lightning’s power-play push.

Kuemper kept on keeping pucks out until MacKinnon finally put one in off his skate for the Avs on the power play. To see the game tied was a win in itself at that point, considering the Avalanche were being badly outplayed at 5-on-5.

Victor Hedman’s goal after that? On a stoppable backhand? That’s on Kuemper. He has been spectacularly inconsistent in the playoffs. And of course, Kuemper resumed making key stops as Colorado clawed back with a fourth-line goal to tie the game.

Bednar has praised Kuemper’s ability to regroup and come up big for the Avalanche when it mattered most. Like Forrest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates though, you never know what you’re gonna get out of him.

Make no mistake, Kuemper is Colorado’s best answer in net (no disrespect to Pavel Francouz). He ended up being pretty good overall in a 37-save effort. It’s just hard not to wonder if his streakiness can make the team skittish — given that everything is on the line in this Cup Final. — Shilton

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