TAMPA, Fla.— “Day to day.”
They are the words no player wants attached to their status when there are just days left in the season.
This is where Nazem Kadri now finds himself, tantalizingly close to the Stanley Cup final but still on the outside looking in. He is engaged in a race against time with his Colorado Avalanche leading the Tampa Bay Lightning two game to one and Game 4 set to go at Amalie Arena on Wednesday.
Kadri is a little more than two weeks removed from surgery on his right thumb, the result of a dangerous crash into the boards at high speed following a hit that earned Evander Kane a one-game suspension during the Western Conference final.
That is a particularly challenging ailment for a left-handed centre to manage since it affects the control hand on his stick. It makes taking faceoffs and handling the puck difficult. It makes shooting it with any force nearly impossible.
To watch Kadri work his way through a self-directed optional skate on Tuesday afternoon was to see someone testing himself for difficult conditions. He hasn’t spoken to reporters since suffering the injury, but he is clearly preparing to play at least one more game before summer.
There appears to be a slight break in the clouds on the horizon — “I think he is. I think he is,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said when asked if Kadri was progressing toward a return — but the timetable isn’t clear.
“He seems to be getting better every day,” Bednar said. “I believe that he is an option for us at some point here. I’m not sure how soon.”
It will ultimately come down to a risk/reward calculation for the Avalanche: Can a player at something less than 100 per cent help the cause? How certain are they that Kadri won’t hurt the thumb by playing in a compromised state?
This can’t be an easy time for a 31-year-old veteran who has appeared in 788 career NHL games, but none anywhere near as big as the ones he is missing.
Kadri isn’t showing any signs of frustration outwardly. He said a quick cheery hello while walking past reporters the morning of Game 3 and he seemed reasonably upbeat during his 30-minute twirl Tuesday afternoon.
There was a method behind everything he did on the ice, from stickhandling to shooting to tipping point shots to engaging a teammate in a stick battle to practising taking a rimmed puck cleanly off the wall. More than once he pressed his stick firmly along the glass as though bracing himself for contact.
He leaned into a few shots, too, but didn’t put the kind of zip on them you would expect to see from a former 30-goal scorer. At one point he lofted a puck high in the air and managed to catch it on his stick blade.
It wasn’t perfect but it was far more promising than any of his previous sessions since surgery.
“Every day he’s kind of done a little bit extra and improved,” said teammate Erik Johnson. “I’d expect him to be a definite possibility in the next couple of games.”
This Cup final is a testament to the attrition every team endures while playing into a fourth consecutive best-of-seven series. Brayden Point is currently unavailable to the Lightning and Nikita Kucherov was unable to complete Game 3 after being crumpled by Devon Toews in the third period. He is expected back for Game 4 but nursing a knee issue. The Avalanche lost Samuel Girard earlier in the playoffs with a broken sternum and Andre Burakovsky was injured while using his hand to block a pass during Game 2 against Tampa Bay.
Then there’s Kadri, who was playing a key role for Colorado this post-season before getting knocked out of the lineup.
He’s facing a huge summer as a pending unrestricted free agent but remains all-in on the opportunity at hand. When you’ve spent 12 years in the league without previously playing beyond Round 2, that’s an easy thing to do.
Simply playing one game in this Stanley Cup final would be an accomplishment.
Remember that Kadri’s playoff history includes being a young member of the Maple Leafs team that blew the 4-1 lead in Game 7 against Boston in 2013, plus three separate suspensions that saw him removed from elimination games.
He may never get a chance as good as this one to completely bury that past and experience the ultimate glory.
“We’re not afraid of the lights, the moment. We’re not afraid to fail. I’m not afraid to fail,” Kadri wrote in a Players Tribune article last month. “And that, right there, is who I am. So I’m going to give everything I have.”
All he’s got to do is find his way back in the lineup.
The days are running short, but he’s getting close.
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