The second-line center brings a playoff-ready dimension to the high-octane Avalanche and the team sure needed it in Game 1 when Coyotes Darcy Kuemper threatened to steal the show.
For most of the opening game between Colorado and Arizona, the narrative was pretty obvious: Coyotes netminder Darcy Kuemper was stealing the show and it wasn’t even close. But the high-octane Avalanche did not succumb to the goaltender’s prowess and a gritty power play goal by center Nazem Kadri opened up a mini-floodgate that led to three scores in a minute and a half, helping Colorado to a 3-0 win.
Getting contributions from forwards not named (or playing with) Nathan MacKinnon will be crucial to Colorado’s Stanley Cup hopes and in Kadri, the Avs have a second-line pivot who brings some valuable playoff skills to the table.
“He plays at a high compete level all the time,” said right winger Mikko Rantanen. “He has the skill to play on the first power play unit but still has the grit to his game. He’s a big part of our team. We want to play gritty like that.”
Acquired from Toronto in the summer as part of a big trade that sent offensive defenseman Tyson Barrie and third-line center Alex Kerfoot to the Maple Leafs, Kadri is no stranger to the post-season, but his memories haven’t been the fondest. As a member of the Leafs, he had a proclivity for dodgy hits and emotional outbursts that led to suspensions – and consistently against the rival Boston Bruins.
But none of that has arisen in Colorado. Now, Kadri is still going to the hard areas, but he is doing so in a way that doesn’t hurt his team. In fact, in Game 1 against Arizona, he led the way.
“He was our best forward tonight, start to finish” said coach Jared Bednar. “Involved physically, real good patience with the puck, good decisions, high percentage plays all over the ice, helping us get in and out of our zone. Had probably our most dangerous looks at the net and then he finally gets rewarded. It’s real important for our team because teams will key in on the MacKinnon line.”
Kadri’s opening goal was a perfect example of what he has brought to the Avalanche lineup. In a game where the Coyotes and Kuemper were constantly denying the Avs any second chances or rebounds, Kadri got himself in tight on the netminder and popped one in from up close. Consider it a reward for all the legwork he had done leading up to the tally: at one point in the second period, Kadri was tied with the entire Coyotes team in shots on net with six apiece.
Of course, part of that was due to the dominance Colorado had over their opponent, with Kuemper being the great equalizer. In the Hollywood underdog version, Kuemper would have completed the shutout and Arizona would have found a way to get one past Philipp Grubauer at the other end. But the Avs were undaunted. As it was, Kuemper made 37 saves on the night.
“It was probably an easy game to get frustrated in,” said Colorado defenseman Erik Johnson. “We played well the majority of the game and they locked it down and didn’t allow a ton of Grade A’s for the majority of the first and second (periods) and part of the third. We just stuck with it and we knew it was going to come.”
The scouting report coming into the series was to get traffic in front of Kuemper, since his excellent play in net this season dictated that straight shots probably wouldn’t get the job done. The scouting report was correct. Kuemper’s positionally-sound play made many of his saves look easy against Colorado, but that’s almost more vexing for shooters. The Avs know that Arizona would prefer to play low-scoring hockey in this series and being able to wrest Game 1 away from a lava-hot goaltender will surely help the Avs sleep better tonight.
As for the Coyotes, it has to sting that they wasted such an epic performance by Kuemper.