Kiszla: With broken right thumb, Avs’ Nazem Kadri drives stake through heart of defending NHL champion

TAMPA, Fla. — When the story of this NHL championship is told, the first and last words will be the same: Nazem Kadri. After the Avalanche hoist the Stanley Cup, the most rousing toast should honor a player who overcame his own demons to deliver hockey’s holy grail to Colorado.

“Oh, man. rollercoaster of emotions, thinking I was done and then having a sliver of hope … Sitting here right now is surreal,” Kadri said late Wednesday after coming off the injured list to drive a stake through the heart of Tampa Bay with a broken thumb.

During his first appearance in a game since June 4, Kadri broke the spirit of the Lightning, delivering the shot that beat Tampa Bay goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy to deliver Colorado a 3-2 overtime victory, and hand the Avs a chance to claim the franchise’s first championship since 2001.

Along the wicked, twisted road to the Cup, Kadri received death threats in St. Louis and got blindsided by a dirty shot in Edmonton. None of it stopped him. All of it made him stronger.

“When you need him, he delivers,” Colorado coach Jared Bednar said.

In the sweet agony of overtime, every ping of a post or the crossbar by the Avalanche made hearts skip a beat. I swear a hot shot by defenseman Bo Byram nearly seared the goal frame in two, only to prolong the angst.

When it was over, Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper took issue with Kadri’s goal, insisting “We should probably still be playing” before bolting out of his news conference in frustration barely 90 seconds after he sat down behind the microphone.

“I’m not quite sure what he’s thinking, why it shouldn’t have counted,” said Kadri, dismissing any suggestion by Cooper the Avs could’ve been guilty of too many men on the ice when the game-winner was scored. “I put the puck in the back of the net. End of story.”

Sour grapes sound bitter from the two-time defending champs.

While far be it from me to encourage a conspiracy theory but the dude in charge of the ice at Amalie Arena let the playing surface deteriorate into roughly the same consistency as a blue raspberry Slurpee at your neighborhood 7-Eleven store, trying to negate the Avalanche’s obvious advantage in team speed.

After giving Darcy Kuemper the hook in a 6-2 loss that gave the defending champs life in this series, Bednar gave his veteran goaltender a big jolt of confidence by starting him in Game 4. During the opening minute of the game, the Lightning knocked off Kuemper’s mask and put the puck past him, with Anthony Cirelli scoring to stake Tampa Bay to a very early 1-0 lead.

For the vast majority of the night, Kuemper rewarded Bednar’s faith by being rock-solid between the pipes. He was slow to cut down the angle of a wild shot by star Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman, however, allowing a goal that put the Lightning ahead 2-1 midway through the second period.

Kadri returned to active duty for Colorado for the first time since his thumb was broken on a dirty hit by Edmonton forward Evander Kane. Rather than ease him back into the lineup, Bednar opened the game with Kadri skating between captain Gabe Landeskog and Valeri Nichushkin.

It requires gritty as well as pretty to win the Cup. So all hail muckers and grinders.

Just when it appeared Vasilevskiy had dialed in the mojo that makes him the top money goalie on the planet, Andrew Cogliano tied Game 4 at 2-2 early in the third period after a rugby scrum on ice. It was such a beautiful mess of a goal the official scorer needed several minutes and perhaps a shot of tequila to compose himself, before figuring out whether to credit the score to Niko Sturm or Cogliano.

“Awesome win, going home, got to win one more,” said center Nathan MacKinnon, who got the Avalanche on the scoreboard with a goal in the first period. “We earned that win. We dominated OT.”

A year ago, the Avalanche’s dream of a championship came undone when Kadri lost his cool and got suspended eight games for nearly jumping out of his skates to deliver a knockout blow on Blues defenseman Justin Faulk.

In a passionate email delivered to me the day the suspension went down, his wife insisted a player with a long history of cheap shots was already on the way to becoming a better man.

“The last two days have been very tough on us. We are deep in thought,” Ashley Kadri wrote last May, precisely 13 months prior to the day when her husband scored the biggest goal of his career.

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“My job as Nazem’s wife is not to paint him as a victim. Nazem has made many inexcusable mistakes throughout the course of his career, for which he has suffered substantial consequences and a great deal of remorse. In our household, he distinctly ingrains a sense of accountability in our daughter … Nazem knows good and well that respect and honor are allotted to those who own up to their shortcomings.”

Before he could become a Stanley Cup hero, Kadri had to change to the man he saw in the mirror.

“This is what I’ve been waiting for my whole life,” Kadri said.