TORONTO - That’s about as close to a Gordie Howe hat trick as Nikolai Kulemin is going to come.
The Maple Leafs forward, eager to leave a dismal first half of the regular season in the dust, had his best performance of 2011-12 in a 2-0 Leafs win against the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday night.
As Jonas Gustavsson made 32 saves for his second shutout in three games, Kulemin scored his fifth goal, set up linemate and buddy Mikhail Grabovski for another and destroyed Sabres pest Patrick Kaleta with an open-ice hit in the third period.
“Kulie had a great game, and as a group, we are all happy for him because he deserves it,” Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said. “He has been working really hard and not getting any results. Sometimes that happens. It was a good night for him and hopefully he keeps rolling.”
Kulemin’s career-best 30 goals last season are a distant memory, but his potential has not been a problem. And he is one of the hardest working Leafs, often staying on the ice long after practice with Grabovski to work on his shot.
“I get chances almost every game and I have to put some in,” Kulemin said. “I just try to do my best. The goal felt better (than the hit). It was a hard game for us and we have to win games like that to move forward.”
The Leafs, before a crowd of 19,431 at the Air Canada Centre, fed off the Kulemin-Grabovski energy and won their fourth game in a row, the first time this season they have accomplished that.
Toronto is 16-0 when leading after 40 minutes and has won its past five at home. Of the Leafs’ seven remaining games before the all-star break, five are at the ACC.
Gustavsson has won 13 of the 18 starts, making observers forget he nearly lost his back-up job to Ben Scrivens in November. Gustavsson got deeper into the groove that he has been in for a while now. With the game scoreless in the first period, Gustavsson snared a wrist shot by Drew Stafford after it looked like the Leafs netminder went down a tad soon.
Early in the second period, Jason Pominville wound up from the slot but Gustavsson calmly got his right arm in the way of the shot.
In the third period, Gustavsson stopped 14 shots, including a point-blank save on Tyler Myers, and got lucky when Nathan Gerbe rang a shot off the post.
The Leafs have 49 points, which put them one ahead of the New Jersey Devils and into sixth place in the Eastern Conference. The Devils played late Tuesday night in Calgary versus the Flames.
The Sabres’ chances at a comeback took a hit when Thomas Vanek, who leads the team with 19 goals, departed the game after the first period after a bout of food poisoning. Brad Boyes took Vanek’s spot on the top Buffalo line with Jochen Hecht and Pominville.
But the Leafs as a whole were strong defensively, and Gustavsson did not face a lot of difficult shots. The Leafs used the body well in their own end, as Mike Komisarek rubbed out Stafford at one point, and Mike Brown sent Marc-Andre Gragnani flying. It helped that David Steckel won 14 of 16 faceoffs.
The Leafs scored twice in first period on Ryan Miller, with Kulemin’s goal coming on a power play. Kulemin, with Sabres defenceman Brayden McNabb coming in for the hit, then set up Grabovski.
With Phil Kessel’s line dormant on the night, scoring from other sources was paramount. That will have to continue in the playoff run.
Coach Ron Wilson was glad to see Kulemin get on the scoreboard, and loved the Russian’s hit on Kaleta.
“That crowned the night for him,” Wilson said. “Kulie won’t fight, so it was more of a Ted Lindsay hat trick. I have never seen him line up a guy like that. It surprised the whole bench, but it got everybody fired up.”
PENALTY-KILL? WHO NEEDS IT?
So much for trying to improve the penalty kill.
For the Maple Leafs, though, what happened on Tuesday night was even better. During a 2-0 victory against the Buffalo Sabres, the Leafs were not shorthanded once, the first time this season that has happened.
It’s not a coincidence that the Leafs have been winning with regularity. In their past three victories, they have been shorthanded just twice, and killed off both penalties.
“It has led to us being pretty good defensively,” coach Ron Wilson said. “We have our sticks down, playing defence the way we should be and we are building on it. I don’t need to be saying so much.
“Before the game, you mention some of these things and during the game the guys are all talking, which is a really positive thing. They start to feel the momentum that this stuff works and they feel confident.”
The Leafs’ penalty killing success remains 30th in the NHL at 73.6%.
The lone penalties against the Leafs last night were a double minor to Joffrey Lupul for roughing and unsportsmanlike conduct at 18:07 of the third. The Sabres’ Nathan Gerbe, who punched Lupul with his glove on and sent Lupul’s helmet flying, was assessed the same penalties. It will be interesting to see whether the nastiness carries over to Friday night, when the Leafs visit the Sabres.