TORONTO — An important piece of business was hidden among the diversions, between the visit by the international teen pop idol, the pre-game television interview conducted by a Canadian poker star and the usual roster moves that are always debated as if the Toronto Maple Leafs had tabled a piece of federal legislation.
They needed a win.
Heading into Thursday night’s NHL home game against the Buffalo Sabres, not only were they at risk of a season-long losing streak, the Leafs were in danger of slipping from a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference standings. Not fatal in December, but also not pleasant.
As it turned out, each of the diversions converged at Air Canada Centre when it mattered for the Leafs. Nazem Kadri, the popular roster topic, scored his first goal of the season in his first game since being recalled to give the Leafs a much-needed 3-2 win over Buffalo. It saved the Leafs from a possible four-game losing streak.
“I had the butterflies before the game, that’s for sure,” Kadri said. “But I made some plays early, got a couple early touches on the puck and then, after that, I felt great.”
Toronto held seventh place in the conference heading into play with 36 points, tied with the Ottawa Senators, who were eighth. Buffalo (35) and the Winnipeg Jets (35) were in the position to leapfrog Toronto with victories.
Injuries forced Leafs coach Ron Wilson to juggle his lines again. With Colby Armstrong out indefinitely with a concussion suffered last week, Kadri and fellow forward Darryl Boyce were promoted from the American Hockey League.
Kadri, the seventh overall selection in the 2009 NHL entry draft, snapped a shot through a pair of Sabres defenders to beat goaltender Ryan Miller on his glove side in the third period. It was a quick shot and a calculated attempt, with Kadri trying to use both Buffalo players as a screen.
Wilson tapped Kadri on the shoulder after the goal.
“He just came up to me and he told me, ‘don’t change a thing, you’re playing great — keep it simple when you have to, and try to make a play when you can,’ ” Kadri said. “It’s nice to get that support, for sure.”
The Leafs had already received support from unexpected sources, after Canadian singer Justin Bieber — he of the approximately 15,663,814 followers on the social media website Twitter — took a few playful shots with a handful of Toronto players on the ice Wednesday. On Thursday, Canadian poker star Daniel Negreanu interviewed Phil Kessel as part of the pre-game show for Leafs TV.
Despite the celebrity karma, it took a flourish for Toronto to take the lead. David Steckel, back from an illness, scored 16 minutes into the second period to tie the game at 1-1, and Kessel popped a cross-ice pass from Joffrey Lupul behind Miller to give the Leafs a 2-1 lead heading into intermission. It was Kessel’s 20th goal of the season.
Derek Roy tied the game 90 seconds into the third, which set the stage for Kadri.
“Last year, it took me a few games to kind of get that first one under my belt, so it’s nice to get the monkey off the back this year,” he said with a smile after the game. “Hopefully, there’s plenty more to come.”
Kadri was averaging a point per game — 22 points (eight goals, 14 assists) through 22 games — with Toronto’s AHL affiliate before he was called back to the big team. And following in the spirit of the ongoing debate among hockey fans, Wilson had been asked what he thought the talented forward needed to do to stay in the NHL this time.
“Not making big turnovers at the offensive blue-line; keeping the game simple while being creative and being good in his own end,” Wilson had said before the game. “He’s shown, in the past, that he can do it, but can you do it for a length of time?”
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