Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

Officiating controversy overshadows Nazem Kadri's moment in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final

TAMPA, Fla. — It's a nightmare scenario for the NHL: A missed call determined the outcome of a Stanley Cup Final Game. 

Nazem Kadri came back from a broken thumb to return for Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final on Thursday night and scored the overtime winner, almost as if it was scripted. The Colorado Avalanche edged the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-2 in overtime and they now have a chance to clinch the Stanley Cup on Friday night in front of a home crowd at Ball Arena. 

It was the most important goal of Kadri's career and it could end up being a defining one. 

“I was trying to go far side. I knew I got a pretty good shot off and might have had a chance,” Kadri said. “I actually thought it was in originally, but then (Andrei Vasilevsky) kind of fooled me there. I thought it was maybe in between his arm.

“It was sort of a two-second confusion there and then I saw everybody bull-rush the ice, and that’s how I knew it was a good goal."

But for the defending champs twice over, it was a gut punch. 

The Lightning were upset with what they believe to be a missed too-many-men call, which is not subject to video review. They believe Kadri jumped over the boards too early and that the Avs had six skaters on the ice on the series that led to the goal. 

Lightning coach Jon Cooper was so beside himself that he abruptly left his postgame press conference while fighting back tears. 

"I'll speak with you tomorrow. You're going to see what I mean when you see the winning goal," Cooper said. "And my heart breaks for the players. Because we probably still should be playing."

Few would say the officiating has been great throughout the postseason, but it hasn't come under scrutiny in the way it did on Thursday night. 

There were an egregious amount of missed calls in Game 4 at Amalie Arena, especially in the later parts of the game. It's difficult to see all of the skaters on the replays of Kadri's goal, but several other angles emerged on social media immediately after the game. 

The league issued a comment a few hours after the game:

"A too many men on the ice penalty is a judgement call that can be made by any of the four on-ice officials. Following the game, hockey operations met with the four officials, as is their normal protocol. In discussing the winning goal, each of the four officials advised that they did not see a too many men on the ice situation on the play. This call is not subject to video review either by hockey ops or the on-ice officials" 

Swallowing the whistle and declining to call ticky tacky penalties in a championship round is one thing, but completely missing a game-altering and a series-altering penalty is an embarrassment. Referees and linesmen are there to police the game's various infractions, not to dictate the outcome of the game as a whole. 

It's not easy, and they're not going to get every call right, but this speaks to a bigger issue of an officiating crisis the league has quietly been trying to navigate for the last decade as the game has sped up to a point that officials cannot always keep up to. 

"I love this league. It's the greatest league in the world. The people that run it are amazing. Everything about it. It's like a dream come true for me, especially being a Canadian kid growing up and everything that's gone on," Cooper said. "And a lot of times when you've — I've been part of some heartbreaking losses and defeats to the teams that took us out and been with a group that just fights, fights and fights. And they fought their way to a third Stanley Cup Final in a row, and when it's so damn hard and the rules are put against you because the league wants parity.

"And I love that about the league. And that's what makes it tougher. And just watch this team, what they've gone through and the battling that's gone on. And we're all in this together. Players, coaches, refs, everybody. But this one is going to sting much more than others, just because it was taking on… it was potentially... I don't know… It's hard for me."

Kadri's return was welcome given how impactful he had been for Colorado before breaking his thumb in the Western Conference Final against the Edmonton Oilers. He dealt with racist taunts and threats in the second round against the St. Louis Blues and netted a hat trick in the midst of it all. 

His presence gave Colorado an emotional boost. 

"It says a lot (about) what we already know: A super resilient human being," Nathan MacKinnon said. "A great boost for us to get that guy back. I thought he looked really good tonight, made a lot of good plays and just seemed to have one great shot on net. I’ll have to watch it, but I saw a picture of it stuck at the top of the net.”

Goalie Darcy Kuemper pushed the puck up to Artturi Lehkonen, who set up Kadri. Driving to the net hard, Kadri roofed one past Vasilevskiy at 12:12 into overtime and got the puck stuck in the back of the net. 

For his part, he said he was unaware of how early he appeared to get on the ice and that MacKinnon, the player he was supposed to be replacing, was more than five feet away. 

"I'm not really sure what (Cooper) was thinking, why it shouldn't have counted," Kadri said. "That confuses me a little bit. The puck hit the back of the net. End of story. Not sure why he'd say that."

Early on, the Lightning seemed all but destined to extend the series to six games. 

Looking for a bounce-back performance after being pulled in the second period in Game 3, Colorado goalie Kuemper was pummeled right away with the Lightning's starting line of Brandon HagelAnthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn getting chances on their first shift. Erik Cernak shot the puck off Kuemper's mask and his helmet fell to the ice, allowing Cirelli to get the rebound past Kuemper from the doorstep just 36 seconds into play.

This was the first controversy regarding the rules of the night, though in this case the rule was not misapplied. 

Mikko Rantanen tied the game at 5:17 in the second period when he shot the puck off of the skate of MacKinnon to give him his first of the Final. But Victor Hedman took back the lead for Tampa Bay just over five minutes later, cutting through the offensive zone and beating Kuemper with his backhand. 

But he locked it down soon after and made some big saves down the stretch. After Nico Sturm grabbed his own rebound out of midair and banked the puck off of a diving Andrew Cogliano early in the third, Kuemper kept the game tied. 

Vasilevskiy made some incredible saves in the third period to give the Lightning a chance. The Avs controlled play throughout the overtime period and defensemen Bowen Byram and Devon Toews both hit the posts, before Kadri put the game away. 

It's a shame it had to end this way, for the Lightning, Kadri and everyone else involved. 

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NHL Colorado Avalanche Tampa Bay Lightning NHL
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