TORONTO – They were the kind of words Nazem Kadri has been longing to hear.
Not only did the 21-year-old winger get off to a roaring start in his latest audition with the Toronto Maple Leafs, he also received an encouraging vote of confidence from coach Ron Wilson.
Kadri snapped the winning goal past Ryan Miller’s glove in his first game since being recalled from the American Hockey League as the Maple Leafs beat the Buffalo Sabres 3-2 on Thursday night.
The big goal came with some nice words from Wilson.
“He’s been pretty supportive and kind of giving me the encouragement to play with the puck,” Kadri said. “I think he knows that I’ve learned how to recognize danger and when to try and make a play and when not to. After I scored that goal, he just came up to me and he told me ‘Don’t change a thing. You’re playing great.’
“It’s nice to get that support for sure.”
There’s no mystery about what Kadri has to do to prolong his latest stint in the NHL. The former first-round pick has previously had trouble scoring at this level—the goal was his fourth in 34 career games—and has also been a liability defensively at times.
However, there were no signs of either problem after his most recent 22-game stint in the AHL.
“He made plays,” said Wilson. “He was good along the wall in our zone and that’s what he has to do. He sees the ice and skates, he’s got confidence and distributes the puck really well.”
David Steckel and Phil Kessel also had goals while James Reimer made 40 saves for the Maple Leafs (17-13-4), who moved up to sixth spot in the tight Eastern Conference standings.
Jason Pominville and Derek Roy replied for Buffalo (16-15-3).
Just as important as Kadri’s contribution was an improved performance by the Toronto penalty kill, which surrendered one goal on six disadvantages and buckled down during a late penalty. In fact, Buffalo could barely muster a shot as the clock ticked down.
“When it really mattered in the last five or 10 minutes of the game, everyone really dug in and they pretty much had nothing,” said Reimer, who has made 80 saves in his last two starts. “That’s the kind of group we have. We’ve got a team that will do anything to win and has a lot of pride.”
The victory couldn’t have come at a much better time for a Leafs team that had lost seven of nine heading in and was sliding in the standings. Toronto quickly boarded a flight following the win and will visit Long Island on Friday in its final game before Christmas.
“We’ve got to take the good out of tonight and move forward and try to finish on a good note before the break,” said Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf.
Buffalo is reeling as it enters the holiday break. The banged-up team can certainly use the time off as leading scorer Thomas Vanek missed the third period with an upper-body injury—joining six other regulars on the sidelines.
“Obviously the couple days rest here is going to be nice to spend time with our families and maybe not think about hockey—think about other things,” said Pominville. “But we wanted to end this on a pretty good note. The effort was there, the results weren’t and if we keep putting efforts on like this and limit those little brain farts a little bit, we’re going to get on a roll here.”
The game began to turn when Toronto’s little-used fourth line scored at 15:52 of the second period to make it 1-1. Darryl Boyce, Joey Crabb and Steckel caused some havoc in the Sabres zone before Steckel knocked home his sixth of the season from the edge of the crease.
The big centre has been weakened by the flu and sat out the last two games. As a result, he didn’t mind the infrequent shifts.
“I don’t have too much energy so it was good by me,” said Steckel. “It’s always tough for guys who don’t play on special teams to get their legs going but it’s part of the game. As long as you’re in it mentally, you should have no issues.”
Kessel put Toronto ahead less than a minute later and Kadri delivered the winner after Roy had tied the game 2-2.
The first-round draft pick from 2009 is intent on sticking around this time and knows he’ll need to keep contributing to make it happen. So far, so good.
“It’s definitely a sigh of relief,” said Kadri. “Hopefully there’s plenty more to come.”
Notes: Fans booed an in-game promo featuring Canadian pop phenom Justin Bieber, who skated with the Leafs on Wednesday … Kessel has 20 or more goals in four straight seasons … Leafs forward Joey Crabb appeared in his 100th career NHL game … Patrick Kaleta returned to Buffalo’s lineup after missing 12 of the last 13 games with a groin injury … Toronto is 11-0-0 when leading after two periods … Announced attendance was 19,473.