Avalanche beats Tampa Bay in overtime to get within one win of Stanley Cup

TAMPA, Fla. — Friday night can’t arrive soon enough, Avalanche fans.

Bring your homemade trophies and signs, wear your favorite player’s sweater and wave your provided pom-poms because your team is 60 minutes from their first Stanley Cup in 21 years.

And they will need every ounce of your energy to help them reach the NHL mountain-top and beat the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

Woeful in the first period and trailing entering the third period Wednesday night, the Avalanche gutted out a 3-2 Game 4 win in front of a stunned Lightning crowd on Nazem Kadri’s winner at 12:02 of overtime. Kadri beat Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy to the blocker side.

The reaction was delayed because the puck was lodged in the upper part of the net.

“Oh man, a rollercoaster of emotions, thinking I was done and then having a sliver of hope and sitting here right now is surreal,” Kadri said. “I was excited to join the team again. This is what I’ve been waiting for my whole life pretty much.”

Kadri was playing for the first time since breaking his thumb in Game 3 of the Edmonton series.

“For Naz, gutsy performance,” Avs coach Jared Bednar said. “Been out, put in a lot of work to make sure he could not only come back and play but he could come back and perform to the best of his ability.”

Said captain Gabe Landeskog: “He will do anything to win. It’s not an easy thing to come back, but you know he wasn’t going to go down easily. It’s an inspiration to everybody to see a teammate fight every day to get better and come back.

“You can’t make that stuff up.”

Bednar said his conversations with Kadri picked up this week about his readiness to not just play, but play well.

“I don’t want him in if can’t play the right way and accomplish what we want to accomplish,” Bednar said. “He was pretty sure (he could produce). Obviously, we want a player of his caliber in the lineup and tonight was a good reason why.”

Kadri said he had a decent idea on Tuesday he would be able to play and the Wednesday morning skate confirmed it. Like everybody else, he didn’t initially know he scored.

“There were a few seconds of confusion and then I saw everybody bull-rush the ice (to celebrate),” Kadri said.

Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper insinuated Kadri’s goal should not have counted, but didn’t say why. The Lightning likely felt the Avs had too many men on the ice.

“My heart breaks for the players because we probably still should be playing,” said Cooper, who then abruptly ended his post-game news conference.

History shows what kind of control the Avalanche is in — teams up 3-1 in the best-of-seven era have won 90.6% of the series.

The first premium chances of overtime were all by the Avalanche in the opening nine minutes — a re-directed Devon Toews slap shot hit the post, a Logan O’Connor stopped breakaway and a Bo Byram shot off the crossbar. In the first 10 minutes, the Avs outshot Tampa Bay 8-3 (not including the two posts) and they were rewarded when Kadri scored.

The Avalanche twice rallied from one-goal deficits on Nathan MacKinnon’s power-play marker off his skate in the second period and Andrew Cogliano after Nico Sturm’s shot went off his shin pad in the third.

Two nights after being pulled, Avs goalie Darcy Kuemper made 37 saves.

The Avalanche’s start was a debacle.

Thirty-six seconds into the game, the Lightning scored when Erik Cernak’s blast was stopped by Kuemper, but Kuemper’s  mask was dislodged and eventually fell to the ice as Anthony Cirelli’s put-back from the top of the crease went into the net. Play wasn’t whistled after Kuemper lost his headgear because of the scoring chance.

The first period was a slough for the usually fast-skating and shoot-a-lot Avalanche. The Lightning’s defense cranked up its activity several notches, moving into passing and shooting lanes (12 blocked shots) to prevent the Avs from gaining any offensive zone momentum.

The Avs had one shot in the first 10 minutes, two in the first 16 minutes, three in the first 18 minutes and four in the first period.

The Avalanche scored the equalizer as its red-hot power play cashed in on Victor Hedman’s interference penalty. Mikko Rantanen’s shot from the left circle was turned away by Vasilevskiy, but bounced off MacKinnon’s skate and back off Vasilevskiy’s skate and into the net. It was MacKinnon’s first goal of the series.

“I had a drought? Three games is a drought?” MacKinnon joked. “It was obviously nice to score, but it’s not about who (scored), it’s just that our team scored.”

The Lightning re-took the lead at 10:42 of the second. Hedman lugged it into the Avs zone, stick-handled around a Valeri Nichushkin and scored on the back-hander from the left faceoff dot. No excuses for Kuemper — that was as soft as the disgraceful Amalie Arena ice. As much as he rewarded coach Jared Bednar’s confidence by getting the Game 4 call after being benched in Game 3, Kuemper didn’t pay it forward on that play.

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One step remains for this Avalanche team.

“They’re going to bring their best and we need to do the same thing,” Landeskog said. “It’s obviously exciting to get a big win on the road in overtime, but we have a big day of rest (Thursday) and get ready for Friday.”