Nazem Kadri puts Avalanche on cusp of a title with OT winner in Game 4

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TAMPA — The overtime hero Wednesday night at Amalie Arena was playing his first game since thumb surgery earlier this month. The procedure had impacted Colorado center Nazem Kadri’s ability to shoot the puck — or at least it did for the first 72 minutes of Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

But with 7:58 remaining in overtime, Kadri found some daylight, then beat Andrei Vasilevskiy high over the goalie’s right shoulder, the puck planting itself in the netting, briefly out of sight so that neither Kadri nor the home crowd had realized the game had ended. But as both realities set in, the Avalanche had a 3-2 win that put it firmly in control of the best-of-seven series with a 3-1 lead.

“It was certainly a few seconds of confusion there and then I saw everyone bull rush the ice,” Kadri said.

Of his surgically-repaired thumb, a grinning Kadri added: “Felt good enough. Everyone is dealing with bumps and bruises this time of year and I just tried to tough it out.”

As Amalie Arena sat in stunned silence, Colorado celebrated at center ice, Avalanche players fully aware that they can close out the series Friday night in Denver.

“Naz just shows how dedicated the guys have been,” Avalanche Coach Jared Bednar said.

Tampa Bay, which was 7-1 in these playoffs when leading after two periods, took a 2-1 lead into the final period. But Colorado forward Andrew Cogliano found the equalizer only 2:53 into the third and it stayed knotted at 2 through the end of regulation.

Colorado hit the post and crossbar during overtime. Then Kadri broke through, putting the Avalanche on the cusp of their first title since 2001.

Wednesday was the second overtime contest of the series and both have gone to the Avalanche. It beat the two-time defending champions in the opener, 4-3, when Andre Burakovsky scored the winner.

The Avalanche entered Game 4 with goaltending concerns after the Lightning’s 6-2 win in Game 3 saw Colorado goalie Darcy Kuemper pulled early. But Kuemper (35 saves) kept the home team in check for the final 40 minutes after Victor Hedman gave Tampa Bay a 2-1 lead midway through the second period.

Vasilevskiy, meanwhile, stopped 34 of 37 shots sent his way, including a breakaway from Logan O’Connor in overtime.

Tampa Bay, riding the momentum of Monday’s blowout, came out hot in Game 4, taking a 1-0 lead on Anthony Cirelli’s goal just 36 seconds in and outshooting the visitors 17-4 over the first 20 minutes.

The Avalanche equalized five minutes into the second period after the puck deflected off the skate of Nathan MacKinnon and past Vasilevskiy. It was MacKinnon’s 12th goal of the playoffs.

Hedman then beat Kuemper with 9:18 left in the second period, weaving his way through the Avalanche defense before scoring with a harmless-looking backhander.

“A tough one to swallow,” Hedman said afterward.

When the Avalanche looked to be fading in the latter half of the game, Cogliano’s goal sparked a Colorado run that was a stark contrast to the opening 20 minutes of the game.

While Colorado has been known for its fast starts in the postseason, the Lightning took control early in Game 4 when Cirelli scored on a rebound, knocking Kuemper’s mask off earlier in the sequence without the referees blowing the play dead (a whistle does not automatically blow when a goalie loses his mask when there is a scoring chance in motion, the NHL rule book states).

The early momentum was entirely with the home team, and the crowd pushed the champions. But Colorado, which struggled to contain the Lightning forecheck, withstood the surge.

The Lightning blocked 12 shots in the first period.

Tampa Bay center Brayden Point did not play in Game 4. He’s missed the past two games because of injury. Point suffered a lower-body injury in Game 7 of the first round and didn’t play again until Games 1 and 2 of the finals. Lightning Coach Jon Cooper said he is not ruling Point out for the rest of the finals.

Burakovsky missed his second straight game because of injury and his status for Game 5 is unclear.

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