Kessel, Kulemin powering Leafs

Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel (right) shares a laugh with Sabres defender Chris Butler after they...

Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel (right) shares a laugh with Sabres defender Chris Butler after they watched a scene from "Slapshot" up on the scoreboard screen. (JACK BOLAND/QMI Agency)

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:54 PM ET

Nazem Kadri? Move along folks, nothing to see here.

Now Phil Kessel and Nikolai Kulemin, these two might just be the real breaking stories of Maple Leafs training camp.

Each winger had a pair of goals to lead the Leafs to a 5-4 pre-season victory over the Buffalo Sabres Monday night at the Air Canada Centre.

And each now have four as Kessel affirms his scoring touch and Kulemin's continues to emerge.

The Leafs, icing their strongest lineup of the pre-season and one coach Ron Wilson said beforehand should be close to the opening-night roster, took on a Sabres team considerably less seasoned.

But a win is a win -- and the Leafs now have three in six pre-season games.

"K" is for Kessel

As he has been throughout camp, the dangerous sniper continues to be the most dynamic Leaf on the ice. Neither of his pair Monday were highlight quality, but being in the right place at the right time and having the goal-scorer's knack paid off. Four goals in three games can't hurt the confidence either ... Wilson will have a tough time breaking up the winger combo of Kessel and Kris Versteeg, whose patience with the puck opens up all kinds of ice for Kessel. "This is going to be a project for Phil, to find the open holes," Wilson said. "He's not used to playing with someone who will slow the play down like this. They are finding some chemistry out there (with centre Tyler Bozak)." ... Two of Kessel's pre-season goals have been on the power-play. He had eight all of last season ... Further to the open ice Versteeg creates: After badly undressing a Sabres defenceman, Versteeg's shot yielded a juicy rebound for Kessel who buried it for his second goal ... While it may seem odd to have three right-handed shots on that first line, Wilson says it plays into their collective style. "It forces them, when they are all righties to move." ... Fair to say Kessel really has five goals this pre-season after what looked like a good one was waved off against the Flyers last Thursday.

"K" is for Kulemin

After scoring his third and fourth in four pre-season games, Kulemin was asked if he could see himself as a 25-30 goal man. "Yeah, why not? It's good because I feel comfortable." ... Playing on a line with centre Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur, Kulemin may provide the scoring burst the Leafs need badly. His game winner was a sharp blast that beat Sabres goaltender Jhonas Enroth ... Wilson on Kulemin's scoring tocuh: "He's got a great shot and a great release. He's shooting the puck more. Hopefully these aren't just goals in the pre-season and they continue into the regular season."

Game on

After a Sunday off and a serious reduction in roster size, the Leafs roster was the strongest of the pre-season. In fact, Wilson called it "pretty much our lineup as I see it." ... The notable exception will be winger Freddie Sjostrom, who is recovered from off-season shoulder surgery and is expected to play Wednesday in Ottawa ...What a day for centre Tim Brent. It started with Wilson essentially saying he's played his way onto the team as the third-line centre. Then he opened Monday's game on the starting line ... It wasn't all good, however. Brent had a bad break when Jordan Leopold shot deflect off his leg past Jonas Gustavsson for the Sabres' third goal ... Interesting comment from Dion Phaneuf after the game. When asked about the state of the roster, the Leafs captain mentioned Brent as one of the big players in camp ... The other would be Christian Hanson, who scored his first of the pre-season and is determined not to let the fourth-line centre spot go. "I came into camp needing some confidence and got off to a good start," Hanson said. "Now I just have to keep working hard."

Overtime

The jury is still out on Gustavsson's play in particular and Leafs goaltending in general. The team has now given up 18 goals in six exhibition games ... Much of the blame goes to defence, however, as there have been frequent bouts of sloppiness. Monday night it was poor clearing, particularly on Buffalo's second power-play goal when four Leafs were huddled in front of Gustavsson ... "(The defence) haven't played together very much," Wilson said. "I need them to get a lot of work before the season starts. We will have some regular practices now with the smaller group of guys." ... Colby Armstrong continues to be as billed: Guy hasn't met a check he doesn't want to finish ... Ditto for fourth-line winger Mike Brown, who may emerge as the team's best shot blocker before long ... Prettiest goal of the night was Sabres centre Nathan Gerbe (with his second of the game) beating the Monster on a penalty shot... Is it just us or has Tomas Kaberle been next to invisible this pre-season?

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca twitter.com/longleysunsport


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