Avalanche inch closer to Stanley Cup Final but lose Nazem Kadri in the process

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

Nazem Kadri was skating toward the boards Saturday night, having just tapped a puck around the back of the net, when Oilers forward Evander Kane lifted his stick and drove it into Kadri’s back. Kadri went flying, his left arm hitting the boards hard. The center stayed down on the ice for around a minute, and the officials assessed Kane a five-minute major penalty.

“I think it’s incumbent on the league to address this targeted hit on Nazem with an appropriate suspension,” Kadri’s agent, Darren Ferris, said in a statement released to The Athletic. “If they don’t address such a serious and dangerously callous hit, shame on them.”

After the game, a 4-2 Avalanche win that gave them a commanding 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series, Bednar said Kadri will miss at least the remainder of the Western Conference final. It’s unclear if he’ll be out should Colorado make the Stanley Cup Final. If he can’t return, the hit from Kane might well have marked the final play of his Avalanche career. He will be an unrestricted free agent this summer and, after a career-best season, will draw heavy interest from teams around the league.

“Those are the (hits) that kind of gives you the chills down your spine, and you’re taught from a young age that you don’t do that, especially in that distance from the boards,” Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog said. “I don’t know what else to say. I’m sure (the league) will take a look at it.”

Said Bednar: “He puts him in headfirst from behind, 8 feet from the boards. I’ll leave it at that.” Kadri was reportedly seen leaving the arena with a cast on his right arm.

Kane, meanwhile, maintained that he was just trying to do an effective job on the backcheck.

“Puck went wide, kind of dribbled into the corner,” he said. “I know he likes to reverse it. I was just trying to get up on him, that’s really all I did. Unfortunately, he went into the boards awkwardly.”

Kadri’s absence will leave a massive void for Colorado, and it puts a damper on a gutsy victory that leaves the Avalanche a win from the Stanley Cup Final. The center is coming off an 87-point regular season, and he has more than 100 points if you include the postseason. He was anchoring the second line with Mikko Rantanen and Artturi Lehkonen, a group that was playing at an elite level and contributed three goals in Game 3.

The Avalanche know how hard games can be without Kadri. Last season, his postseason suspension cost the team dearly, especially in the second-round series against Vegas. It forced forwards into roles they weren’t ready for, and Colorado’s struggling depth forwards were part of the reason the team blew a 2-0 series lead and lost four games in a row.

The Avalanche have a more complete team now than they did last postseason. They’ve prided themselves all postseason on their depth. But no one who plays at Kadri’s level is waiting in the wings.

“His role will be filled by committee,” Bednar said. “That’s how big of a player he is for us. It could be one guy one night and a different guy the next. I’m comfortable with it. Obviously, it’s a huge loss, but it’s out of our control.”

JT Compher will be one player who needs to step up, and he did in a major way Saturday after making what could have been a costly mistake. He tripped Leon Draisaitl midway through the third, then watched from the penalty box as goaltender Pavel Francouz robbed Connor McDavid with a glove save. Evan Bouchard nearly scored from outside, but the puck hit the post, keeping the 2-2 tie intact.

As Compher came out of the box, he beat Bouchard to an Andrew Cogliano pass, then charged toward Oilers goaltender Mike Smith. He tried to go between the netminder’s legs but initially thought he’d failed when he saw Smith’s positioning. He continued toward the net, looking for a rebound, then raised his hands in elation when he saw the puck in the back of the net.

“Definitely a roller coaster,” Compher said of going from the penalty box to the goal. “Not a good time to take a penalty. Unbelievable job by our penalty kill, by Frankie. Little bit of luck off the post. Our penalty kill is doing 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, that’s the highs, for sure.”

The goal stood after a strong defensive effort by the Avalanche’s top players, who executed a five-on-six kill with Edmonton’s net empty. Artturi Lehkonen and Devon Toews picked up key blocks, and Rantanen intercepted a Draisatil pass and put it in the empty net with 30 seconds left to end any hopes of an Edmonton comeback.

“It shows you the kind of commitment you need to win games,” said superstar center Nathan MacKinnon, who had an assist and a plus-two rating on the night. “If those pucks get through, who knows, right? The commitment that guys have in the room sacrificing themselves, playing for one another, and obviously Mikko, awesome reads. …Great sacrifice from guys to get that win.”

Most of the talk after the game, though, centered on Kadri’s injury. Along with Compher, Alex Newhook and Nico Sturm could have to step up at center. Bednar could also shift Rantanen from wing to center, a position he played at points this season. If Andre Burakovsky, a capable goal scorer, can return from a suspected lower-body injury, he could also give the Avalanche a boost.

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

Stand-out performance

Valery Nichushkin (two goals): With Colorado struggling at five-on-five in the first period, Nichushkin registered the Avalanche’s first even-strength shot of the frame, though he intended for it to be a pass. He sent a puck across the ice, but it hit off Darnell Nurse’s stick and beat Smith to make the score 1-1. Nichushkin also scored in the second period to give the Avalanche a lead that lasted until a Ryan McLeod goal in the third.

Nichushkin has been strong playing on the top line with Landeskog and MacKinnon.

“It’s amazing, but you have to prove it every game,” he said of his top-line responsibility. “You cannot be sleepy. I really like it.”

Not a bad outcome for a player originally acquired on waivers.

Devon Toews (two assists): Toews played nearly 27 minutes, 12:31 of which came against McDavid at five-on-five. In those minutes, the Avalanche had 56.13 percent of the expected goal share.

Pavel Francouz (.931 save percentage): Though he should have saved McLeod’s goal, Francouz stopped 27 shots and gave the Avalanche plenty of reason to believe he can help them win this series while Darcy Kuemper is hurt. His save on McDavid in the third was a game-changer.

“That’s kind of who Frankie is,” Bednar said. “He’s just gonna look past any success or any failures that he has and keep trying to be the best he can be. I love that demeanor about him, especially in the role that he’s in as a backup. He gets thrown into the limelight here with the injury to Kuemps, and he just kind of keeps being himself, and I think that’s what our guys love and respect about him.”

(Photo of Nazem Kadri being tended to after the hit: Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)


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