BOSTON – Nazem Kadri has been known to dish out some shots, so it’s only fitting he’s taken some good-natured ones from his Toronto Maple Leafs teammates in recent days.
“We were joking with him: He’s the most rested guy in hockey,” said Leafs right-winger Connor Brown.
The boys will happily retire that line now that Kadri is back in the lineup, looking like his old self. And if this team that showed it won’t go away quietly by beating the Boston Bruins 4-3 on Saturday night is truly serious about making this a series, they’ll need even more of the combativeness that seems to come so naturally to Kadri.
After chuckling about the moniker that was bestowed on him, Kadri acknowledged — all kidding aside — that he did feel fresh after returning from a three-game suspension that forced him to miss Games 2 through 4 of a series the Bruins now lead 3-2.
“I felt pretty rested out there, I felt good,” Kadri said. “I just wanted to make an impact however I could, I tried to be physical early and still play on that edge. I don’t think my game is going to change. That’s how I’m most effective and I was able to make some plays out there.”
Yes, everything Kadri can do — from the pretty to the gritty — was on display in his much-anticipated return. Like everyone else on the Leafs, he was playing on a revamped trio after coach Mike Babcock went to the blender in the hopes of finding a winning formula. With rookie Andreas Johnsson on his left and William Nylander to his right, Kadri wasted no time landing on the scoresheet thanks to a beautiful feed on Johnsson’s first career post-season marker.
The play, which occurred just before the halfway point of the first period and put the Leafs up 2-0, saw Kadri slide into the high slot and feather a puck toward the goal Johnsson could blast onto like a soccer striker and stuff past Tuukka Rask on the backhand as he whizzed through the crease.
“I tried to yell at him to drop it first,” Johnsson said. “It was a really good job by him to draw both [defencemen] to him. I just tried to skate to the net, I thought he was going to shoot first and then he made a nice pass to me.”
Kadri made a second sweet setup to Nylander early in the second that would have resulted in another goal if not for the quick feet of Rask. And while that skill — we’re talking about a 32-goal scorer here, don’t forget — is the most tangible way Kadri’s return provides a boost, his contributions are by no means limited to goals and assists.
In the middle frame, Kadri made a great — if not painfully executed — block on a Torey Krug shot when he got spun around and actually stopped the puck with the back of his leg. In the final minute, he won a defensive zone face-off against the king of the dot, Patrice Bergeron, at a time when every possession is crucial. In between that, he confirmed his commitment to the troublemaking lifestyle by taking a pretty serious swipe at Jake DeBrusk after he felt the Bruins left winger took a run at him from behind.
No NHLer is going to change who he is based on one sentence handed down by the league, but there’s a certain defiance to Kadri, an unwavering self-belief that makes him well-suited to life as a pro athlete and just the kind of skilled, salty player who can help drag a team out of a nasty hole.
“He plays with a lot of heart and we feed off a lot of things he does out there,” Brown said. “And he’s a tough guy to play against. Any time he’s in the lineup, we’re a better team.”
Kadri has made no secret of the fact he didn’t agree with the three games handed to him for launching himself into Boston’s Tommy Wingels in Game 1. Still, the 27-year-old says his brush with the NHL law has not placed any additional burrs under his saddle. All he’s focused on is being the player who was such a big part of the Toronto’s success all season, one whose presence makes the lineup fall perfectly into place.
“I just wanted to play, it wasn’t about the suspension,” he said. “It was just about being out there with my guys and trying to contribute. It’s just a helpless feeling watching when you know you can help. That was tough for me.”
Now that it’s over, it’s going to be that much harder to put Kadri and the Leafs on permanent vacation.