The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Colorado, thriving against Tampa Bay, is a win away from the Stanley Cup

Colorado Avalanche center Nazem Kadri made a triumphant return to the ice on Wednesday. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

DENVER — Colorado Avalanche center Nazem Kadri thought his season was over in early June after he underwent surgery on his thumb following a hard crash into the boards in the Western Conference finals.

It was a significant blow to what had been a stellar postseason for Kadri, highlighted by his hat trick in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. That feat happened only a couple nights after Kadri — who collided with (and indirectly injured) St. Louis Blues goaltender Jordan Binnington — was the victim of death threats and racist attacks on social media.

Kadri endured the tumultuous few days that followed, the messages rooted in deep-seated hate. He felt his game was thriving — until his hand injury.

But fast-forward 18 days after Kadri’s crash into the end boards, and what started as a nightmare scenario turned into a triumphant return Wednesday night in Colorado’s Game 4 overtime win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Cup finals.

Kadri, playing in his first game since the procedure, was still unable to fully grip his stick but scored the game-winner. His goal was controversial, coming after officials appeared to miss an illegal line change. But it was also one of the biggest in franchise history and put the Avalanche firmly in control of the best-of-seven series.

“[It’s been a] roller coaster of emotions,” Kadri said after the Avalanche’s 3-2 overtime win in Game 4. “Thinking I was done, then having a sliver of hope, sitting here right now is kind of surreal. I just was excited to join the team again and be in the dressing room. This is what I’ve been waiting for my whole life, so it was certainly exciting to be back in the lineup.”

The Avalanche hold a 3-1 series lead over the two-time defending champion, with Game 5 set for Friday night in Colorado. Teams with a 3-1 lead in a best-of-seven hold an all-time series record of 298-31 and a 35-1 mark in the Stanley Cup finals.

“You know he wasn’t going to go down easy,” Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog said of Kadri. “It’s an inspiration to everybody else to see a teammate like that try to come back and fight every day to try to get better and finally he’s back in the lineup. No doubt it was exciting for us and gave us a different look. You can’t make that stuff up. Big in overtime, and it’s great to see.”

Colorado will look to ride the momentum from Kadri’s comeback into Game 5 at Ball Arena. The Avalanche won the first two games at home in the finals, with a 4-3 overtime Game 1 win and a 7-0 Game 2 rout.

“It’s going to be great,” Avalanche Coach Jared Bednar said Thursday of Colorado’s chance to clinch the Stanley Cup at home. “We try all season long to get home-ice advantage, and we came in and got a split in Tampa, played better the second night than we did in the first. Our guys will be excited. Our guys are excited and should be playing with desperation. It should be a great hockey game.”

Kadri deflected questions Wednesday night about how much pain he was in during the game and the struggle to get back onto the ice, saying only that he felt “good enough.” However, his teammates told a different story.

Colorado forward Andrew Cogliano, who also underwent hand surgery during the Western Conference finals, said Kadri’s timeline to return was moved up by months, not weeks.

“For what he is dealing with, it is pretty remarkable to be honest,” Cogliano said. “… Naz is a gamer. At the end of the day, he is a gamer, and he is a guy that thrives in moments like this, and he’s exactly the guy you want on your team in moments like this, for in the room and on the ice.”

And while the Avalanche will look to complete its chase for the Cup, Tampa Bay won’t go quietly. Forward Pat Maroon, who has won the Stanley Cup in three straight seasons, said while the Game 4 loss was tough, the Lightning is still confident.

“The good thing is we’re still playing hockey,” Maroon said. “We haven’t lost yet. It’s the first one to get to four wins right now, and we’ve got a little challenge in front of us, but if there’s one team that can do it, it’s this team.”