Avalanche approaches the Stanley Cup Finals but loses Nazem Kadri in the process


Avalanche approaches the Stanley Cup Finals but loses Nazem Kadri in the process

EDMONTON — Avalanche coach Jared Bednar called it the most dangerous play in hockey.

Nazem Kadri was heading for the boards Saturday night, having just tapped a puck around the back of the net when Oilers forward Evander Kane raised his stick and rammed it into Kadri’s back. Kadri flew away, his left arm hitting the boards hard. The center stayed on the ice for about a minute, and the officials assessed a five-minute major penalty on Kane.

“I think it’s on the league to address this aimed hit at Nazem with an appropriate suspension,” Kadris agent Darren Ferris said in a statement released on the athlete. “If they don’t address such a heavy and dangerously callous hit, they’re ashamed.”

After the game, a 4-2 Avalanche win that gave them a comfortable 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series, Bednar said Kadri will at least miss the rest of the Western Conference Finals. It’s unclear if he’ll be out should Colorado reach the Stanley Cup Finals. If he can’t return, Kane’s goal could have been the last game of his Avalanche career. He will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, drawing huge interest from teams across the league after the best season of his career.

“Those are the[hits]that give you chills and you learn from a young age not to do that, especially at this distance from the boards,” Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog said. “I don’t know what else to say. I’m sure (the league) will look at it.”

Said Bednar: “He sets him upside down from behind, 8ft from the boards. I’ll leave it at that.” Kadri was allegedly seen left the arena with a cast on his right arm.

Kane, meanwhile, claimed he was just trying to do an effective job of backchecking.

“Puck went too far, sort of dribbled into the corner,” he said. “I know he likes to turn it around. I was just trying to get up on him, that’s really all I did. Unfortunately he went clumsily into the boards.”

Kadri’s absence will leave a huge void for Colorado and put a damper on a brave win that gives the Avalanche a Stanley Cup Finals win. The center is coming off a regular season with 87 points, and he has over 100 points when you factor in the postseason. He anchored the second row with Mikko Rantanen and Artturi Lehkonen, a group that played at elite level and contributed three goals in Game 3.

The Avalanche know how tough games can be without Kadri. Last season, his postseason suspension cost the team a lot of money, especially in the second-round series against Vegas. It forced forwards into roles they weren’t ready for, and Colorado’s struggling depth forward was one of the reasons the team gambled away a 2-0 lead and lost four straight games.

The Avalanche now have a more complete squad than last postseason. They’ve been proud of their depth all postseason. But nobody who plays at Kadri’s level is waiting in the wings.

“His role will be filled by the committee,” Bednar said. “That’s how big he is for us as players. It could be one guy one night and another the next. I’m comfortable with that. Of course it’s a big loss, but it’s beyond our control.”

JT Compher will be a player who needs to step up and he did that in a big way on Saturday after making a potentially costly mistake. He tripped Leon Draisaitl midway through the third game and then watched from the box as goalkeeper Pavel Francouz robbed Connor McDavid with a glove save. Evan Bouchard almost scored from the outside, but the puck hit the post, keeping the 2-2 tie intact.

Coming out of the box, Compher smacked Bouchard into an Andrew Cogliano pass, then charged at Oilers goalie Mike Smith. He tried to get between the goalkeeper’s legs but initially thought he had failed when he saw Smith’s positioning. He continued toward the net looking for a rebound, then raised his hands in delight when he saw the puck in the back of the net.

“Definitely a rollercoaster ride,” Compher said of the path from the penalty area to the goal. “Not a good time for a penalty. Incredible performance from our penalty shootout, from Frankie. Some luck from the post office. Our penalty taker does a good job of limiting chances and I can’t thank that unit enough.

“From the lowest and in the box and waiting, and then being able to get one, those are the highs for sure.”

The goal came after a strong defense from the Avalanche’s top players, who executed a five-for-six kill from Edmonton with an empty net. Artturi Lehkonen and Devon Toews picked up key blocks and Rantanen intercepted a Draisatil pass and put it into the empty net with 30 seconds remaining to shatter any hopes of an Edmonton comeback.

“It shows you what kind of commitment it takes to win games,” said superstar center Nathan MacKinnon, who had an assist and a plus-two rating that night. “If those pucks get through, who knows, right? The commitment guys in the room have to sacrificing themselves, playing for each other and of course Mikko makes great reads. … Big sacrifice by the lads to get that win.”

However, most of the talk after the game revolved around Kadri’s injury. In addition to Compher, Alex Newhook and Nico Sturm could have to move to the center. Bednar could also move Rantanen from the wing to the centre, a position he has played on points this season. If Andre Burakovsky, a capable goalscorer, can come back from a suspected lower body injury, he could also give the Avalanche a boost.

“We need to rethink things and see where our health is with all our guys,” Bednar said. “Then pick a lineup that we think can get the job done here against the Oilers in Game 4.”

Outstanding achievements

Valery Nichushkin (two goals): While Colorado struggled five-for-five in the first half, Nichushkin registered the Avalanche’s first shot on the frame with equal strength, though he intended it to be a pass. He sent a puck across the ice, but he hit Darnell Nurse’s stick, defeating Smith to make it 1-1. Nichushkin also scored in the second half to put the Avalanche ahead, which lasted until a Ryan McLeod goal in the third.

Nichushkin has played well in the top line with Landeskog and MacKinnon.

“It’s amazing, but you have to prove it in every game,” he said of his responsibility at the top. “You mustn’t be tired. I really like it.”

Not a bad result for a player originally acquired on a waiver.

Devon Toews (two assists): Toews played just under 27 minutes, including 12:31 against McDavid in a five-on-five. In those minutes, the Avalanche had 56.13 percent of their expected goal share.

Pavel Francouz (0.931% saving): Although he should have saved McLeod’s goal, Francouz stopped 27 shots and gave the Avalanche ample reason to believe he can help them win this series while Darcy Kuemper is injured. His save against McDavid in the third was a turning point.

“That’s Frankie,” Bednar said. “He’ll just look past any success or failure and keep trying to be the best he can be. I love that behavior about him, especially in his backup role. He gets the spotlight here with Kuemps injured and he just keeps being himself and I think that’s what our boys love and respect about him.

(Photo of Nazem Kadri being treated after scoring: Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)

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