Kadri the Sabres Killer
Young gun comes through for T.O.
LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency
|Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri celebrates a goal against the Sabres at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ont., Dec. 22, 2011. (MIKE CASSESE/Reuters)
TORONTO - Nazem Kadri provided some headlines in the Toronto dailies when he vowed he was ready to seize his latest -- some might say last -- big chance with the Maple Leafs.
But in his first game since his AHL recall, Kadri backed that boldness with the 3-2 winner in a badly needed home game against the Buffalo Sabres.
"I think anybody coming up and making that next step to the NHL will be feeling pressure and it's just how you handle it," Kadri said. "Last year it took me a few games to score my first one. I had some butterflies before this game for sure. But I made some plays early, got some early touches on the puck, got my feet wet."
Vexed for years by the Sabres and goalie Ryan Miller in particular, the Leafs' bench, Kadri and one of the loudest Air Canada Centre crowds in memory celebrated the goal. Kadri snapped a third-period goal upstairs to prevent Buffalo from passing the Leafs for the last playoff spot, averting Toronto's first four-game losing streak in more than a year. Toronto rode a second straight 40-save night by James Reimer to just its second ACC victory in a month.
Kadri, who was also learning a new position at right wing, has had a few false starts since being picked seventh overall in 2009, but says his troubles with defensive play are behind him.
"I know when to recognize danger, when to try and make a play and when not to," he added. He scored on a great drop pass from Clarke MacArthur, drew a late penalty to help stifle Sabres momentum, but had to sweat out his own tripping call before the Toronto's league-worst penalty killing unit bailed him out.
Coach Ron Wilson, who has been one of Kadri's toughest critics, pulled him aside after the goal, in which Kadri shot high when so many mates were getting stoned by Miller in the lower cage.
"He said: 'Don't change a thing, you're playing great," Kadri said, at the same time praising veteran linemates MacArthur and Tim Connolly for easing his transition.
Reimer, who Wilson said might start again Friday on Long Island, had been telling everyone that his poor record (1-3-2) since coming back from a head injury was misleading.
"He looks a little more comfortable in there," Wilson said. "To get a win tonight, in a tight, hard-fought game should help his confidence and our whole team's. We haven't won a division game in awhile, which we talked about before the game, but the problem is we don't get time to savour it."
The injury-riddled Sabres looked to be ready to play Grinch in the second period when they scored late in what had been a well-defended 5-on-3. Toronto then had its own 55-second 5-on-3 elapse without success, but kept the heat on Miller. It paid off at 15:52 when David Steckel, still recovering from a bout of bronchitis, took the last swat at a Dion Phaneuf rebound. Joey Crabb picked up an assist in his 100th NHL game. A day earlier, Wilson harrumphed at the idea that his fourth line should be expected to score.
"It's good we proved him wrong," chirped Crabb. "We (Steckel and Darryl Boyce) were working the puck pretty good on the cycle and getting some scoring chances. Our main responsibility is the defensive side, but the offence is a bonus."
Steckel's goal was inspiration for Phil Kessel to join a rare list of 21st century Leafs to have three consecutive 20-goal seasons. He got a stick on a pass from productive partner Joffrey Lupul, who has not gone more than a game without getting a point.
Miller, whose 25 wins against the Leafs are five more than he has against other division rivals Montreal and Boston, made 28 saves.
Before the match, Reimer weighed in on the Leafs' struggles at home (7-9 including overtime).
"It's home ice advantage and if you don't take advantage of it, things won't turn out well," he said. "We want to win at home because that's where it means the most to you. It's much more fun to see the reaction. Win on the road it's kind of a silent crowd."