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After Disputed Goal, Avalanche on the Cusp of a Stanley Cup Win

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TAMPA, Fla. — The sport that ushered the Colorado Avalanche to the precipice of winning their first Stanley Cup in over twenty years had ended a minute or two earlier, and the Hockey Hall of Famer in the back of the freight elevator at Amalie Arena stared straight ahead because it descended the seven flights to ice level.

His face betrayed no hint as to what he had just witnessed — the puck that vanished, the confusion that reigned, the euphoria that followed — or to what it meant to him, the person who assembled the juggernaut of those N.H.L. playoffs.

Before Game 4 of the finals Wednesday night, it was he, Joe Sakic, now the Avalanche’s general manager, who had scored the franchise’s most memorable goal this millennium. He ceded that distinction — happily, presumably — to Nazem Kadri, whose shot off the frenzy fooled everyone, including Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, the on-ice officials and a house crowd in Tampa unaccustomed to silence.

When finally spotted within the netting, the puck offered confirmation not only of Colorado’s 3-2 extra time victory but additionally of an overarching truth this series, and on this postseason. The Lightning may need the bona fides and the tenacity of a two-time defending champion, but Colorado has been the superior team.

The Avalanche have played 18 playoff games and won 15. They swamped Nashville, St. Louis and Edmonton — sweeping the primary and third rounds — before prevailing thrice against the Lightning, twice in extra time, dominating each extra periods. Their speed and skill and special teams — seven goals to Tampa Bay’s one — have overwhelmed Tampa Bay, just as Sakic had hoped they’d heading into the series. On Wednesday, Kadri and five players acquired inside the last yr — and three ahead of the trade deadline, in Andrew Cogliano, Nico Sturm and Artturi Lehkonen — combined for six points on the tying and winning goals.

Colorado can hoist the Cup with yet one more win, as soon as Friday night in Denver, where within the comforts of the mile-high altitude the Avalanche thumped the Lightning by 11-3 in Games 1 and a couple of.

“Obviously, they’re probably preaching, ‘They’ve never been here; they’re going to be tight,’ and that’s fair,” the Colorado star center Nathan MacKinnon said. “But we’ll be able to go. We’ve been great under pressure all playoffs, all season.”

MacKinnon is correct, by all accounts. Perennial contenders, Colorado hadn’t played for the Cup since 2001, when Sakic scored the clinching goal in Game 7 against the Devils, or within the conference finals since 2002. This despite rolling to the Presidents’ Trophy last season, for having the N.H.L.’s best record, despite boasting a feared collection of talent, including MacKinnon, whose strides ought to be measured by a seismograph, forward Mikko Rantanen and the Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Cale Makar, whose comparisons to Bobby Orr might appear to be sacrilege in the event that they weren’t so striking.

Sometimes, though, within the grueling pursuit of a Cup, teams profit from luck, from happenstance and circumstance and from boundless pain tolerance: from facing lesser goalies in the primary three rounds to Kadri’s surgically repaired right thumb regaining enough function to merit his rejoining the lineup after a three-week absence.

“Just considering I used to be done after which having a sliver of hope, sitting here without delay, it’s form of surreal,” Kadri said, adding, “That is what I’ve been waiting for my whole life just about.”

In Game 4 of their second-round triumph against St. Louis, Kadri scored a hat trick mere hours after receiving racist death threats from fans for a collision that knocked Blues goalie Jordan Binnington out of the series. In one other Game 4, on Wednesday, Kadri finished off a sequence that began with a sweet pass from goalie Darcy Kuemper — who, sensing the Lightning were drained, had the notice to push the puck up ice — and roof the puck past Vasilevskiy. Or so it seemed.

For just a few seconds, nobody celebrated, in a moment that evoked one other anticlimactic extra time game-winner from the finals, scored by Chicago’s Patrick Kane in 2010 to clinch the title over Philadelphia. Then Kadri began nodding, the bench began emptying and the Lightning began skating off the ice, their hopes for a 3rd consecutive title in peril.

Even to achieve this stage, they’d to outlast the league’s two highest-scoring teams, Toronto and Florida, and overcome a 2-0 series deficit against the Rangers, all while starting every series on the road. To increase this one, the Lightning must stifle an unholy trinity of disappointment: losing in extra time, at home, on a goal they believed mustn’t have counted.

Walking into his postgame news conference, Tampa Bay Coach Jon Cooper looked like he needed a stiff drink, a hug or a while alone in a soundproof room with the officiating crew — or all three, really. He took one query before excusing himself, sounding defeated as he lauded his team’s accomplishments in a salary-cap era that stifles would-be dynasties before veering right into a cryptic response that disputed the legitimacy of Kadri’s goal.

“This one goes to sting far more than others,” Cooper said, adding, “You’re going to see what I mean while you see the winning goal. And my heart breaks for the players. Because we probably still ought to be playing.”

As he reiterated Thursday, Cooper, a former lawyer, contended, based on replays ricocheting across social media, that Colorado had too many men on the ice when Kadri scored — that MacKinnon lingered too long, too removed from the Avalanche bench, when Kadri jumped on. The league, in a press release issued Thursday morning by its department of hockey operations, said that not one of the officials considered it a violation, and that the decision was not subject to video review.

Though he did say Thursday the team must move on, neither time did Cooper mention, naturally, that the Lightning benefited from an analogous noncall last postseason, after they appeared to have had an additional player on the ice for the goal that ousted the Islanders in Game 7 of their semifinal series. In hockey, if not in life, these moments are inclined to even out, and neither the interpretation of a rule nor the vagaries of a puck could minimize Colorado’s authority in extra time, when it nearly scored on loads of other occasions.

In response to Natural Stat Trick, the Avalanche have registered 75 more total shots at even strength than the Lightning. They’ve 11 more high-danger scoring possibilities. They’ve stressed Tampa Bay through the neutral zone and between the circles and below the goal line.

That is how they’ve won all season, all postseason, and unless Tampa Bay can summon one final thrust — after which one other, after which one other — the subsequent time Sakic goes down an elevator to the ice, it is going to be to lift the Stanley Cup.

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