If anyone owes the Toronto Maple Leafs the game of his life on Saturday night it’s Nazem Kadri.
Kadri’s three-game suspension from Game 1 of the NHL first-round series is just one of many reasons the Toronto Maple Leafs face elimination, with the Boston Bruins holding a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven affair. But it’s the only reason that never should have happened.
When Kadri saw Bruins forward Tommy Wingels hit Leafs sparkplug Mitch Marner in that game, he suffered a massive a brain cramp, driving Wingels’s head into the boards. The resulting suspension cost the Leafs their shutdown centre, who is an equal threat offensively.
Maybe the Bruins, led by the line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, would have blitzed the Leafs anyway in Game 2 but there is no doubt Kadri’s absence helped the knee-capping. Trying to slow the Bergeron line is enough of a job by itself but Kadri has the ability not only to frustrate an opponent but to score on him as well. While Tomas Plekanec did an admirable job filling in for Kadri against Bergeron as the Leafs won Game 3 and even scored a goal in the Game 4 loss to the Bruins, it just wasn’t the same level.
So now, as the Leafs try to avoid elimination with their top line of Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Zach Hyman spinning its wheels, Kadri has to make amends if they are to survive for Game 6. He may even get to do it without worrying about Bergeron.
The Bruins centre skated on his own Friday as the rest of the team rested, which head coach Bruce Cassidy called “positive.” But it appears a decision on whether Bergeron will miss a second consecutive game with an undisclosed injury will not be made until game time on Saturday.
Kadri did not come across as contrite about his assault on Wingels.
“I was disappointed,” he said of the suspension. “I was not expecting that, that’s for sure. That particular play I just felt like a liberty had been taken on [Marner] and I’m always going to stand up for my teammates and stand up for myself. That part is not going to change about me.
“Was it worthy of a suspension? I definitely think so. But I think the three games is definitely a little harsh.”
It must be heartening for the Leafs to know that, in a series in which the Bruins are scoring power-play goals at will and the Leafs need to keep their heads to stay alive, Kadri is willing to do the same thing again. He did not address his teammates about his faux pas, Kadri said, because “they understand.”
“I didn’t like the prior hit and I want to protect my teammates,” he said. “At that point in the game, I did not feel like it was a malicious play to go in and try to hurt him, but it was more of a statement thing, making a lot of contact with the majority of the boards.
“But thankfully [Wingels] was not injured on the play. But I think if my intent was there [it] possibly could have been an injury. It could have been a lot worse. I disagree with the three games but I’m just going to move forward now.”
If the Leafs are fortunate, Kadri may move forward without putting the head of Wingels or anyone else between himself and the boards.
While the Leafs may have the advantage of seeing Bergeron out of the lineup for the second consecutive game, it may turn out as badly as Thursday’s 3-1 loss if Matthews and Nylander do not find a way to contribute in this series. Outside of Matthews scoring the winning goal in Game 3 they have been smothered by the Bruins.
As Leafs head coach Mike Babcock pointed out, the team’s best lines in Thursday’s loss were the second one with Plekanec in Kadri’s spot between Marner, the Leafs’ best player in the series, and Patrick Marleau, and the fourth line with Dominic Moore between Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson.
This puts Babcock in a quandary. While Plekanec played well when he was moved to the second line, he was abysmal in his regular fourth-line centre’s role. Moore did a much better job in that position for the past two games. Babcock admitted the lineup change will not be as simple as dropping Plekanec back to the fourth line and Moore to the sidelines.
Which is why Babcock said he asked Plekanec if he could maintain the level he did with Marner and Marleau despite moving back to the fourth line.
“I actually asked him that, I asked him that same question,” Babcock said. “I said, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, but what if I do this? Are you still – you finally found your game as a Leaf, we need you to be that good.’ ”
Babcock said he will take as much time as he can before deciding who plays and who plays where on Saturday night.
“That’s why we cancelled practice, so I had to make no decisions,” he said. “The reality is we’ll go through all of that again and we’ll set ourselves up for success. When you look at our lines [Thursday] night, up front anyway, our best line was [Plekanec]’s group and then our fourth line. So, when you look at that, you’ve got to keep that in mind, too, as you go into Boston.”