The forward missed 16 of the final 17 games of the regular season and played just 51 in all due to a series of injuries. He had just 4 goals this season, and none since Dec. 27. He wasn't even guaranteed a spot in the lineup Thursday.
"I didn't really make my decision until today if I was going to play him," said Sabres coach Lindy Ruff. "It was a tough decision."
It also was a good one as Kaleta snapped a scoreless tie 5:56 into the third period and Ryan Miller stopped all 35 shots he faced to help the Sabres to a 1-0 victory here at the Wells Fargo Center.
The importance of the win goes beyond the Sabres taking away the home-ice advantage. Game 1 success has been a key in the postseason history between the teams -- In eight previous playoff meetings, the club that won the opening game has won the series.
Philadelphia goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, making his Stanley Cup Playoff debut, stopped 24 of the 25 shots he faced.
The one he didn’t get was an example of the hard work both teams brought in huge portions. Paul Gaustad sent a pass across the Flyers' zone to Marc-Andre Gragnani at the left point. The rookie defenseman fired a shot that Bobrovsky stopped, but Kaleta fought off Philadelphia defenseman Danny Syvret to bang in the rebound.
"I just went to the net," Kaleta said. "It started out with Gerbs (Nathan Gerbe) down low, being hard on the puck, tough on the puck. Goose (Gaustad) made a great pass to Grags (Gragnani), and Grags, good shot. I just went to the net and finished the rebound."
After the season he’s had, Kaleta said he was happy to make any kind of contribution he could.
"I've been unfortunate with a couple injuries this year blocking shots," he said. "I've watched my teammates battle night in and night out, and not being able to be a part of it on the ice hurts a little bit. I wanted to go out there and be a positive contribution to the team (and) I was fortunate enough to get a goal."
It was the only one thanks to strong play both Miller and Bobrovsky. Miller faced the more difficult chances – he had to stop five Philadelphia power plays, including a 38-second 5-on-3 advantage. Not bad for a player who had faced 52 minutes of game action in the last two weeks due to an upper-body injury.
"He was locked in tonight," Ruff said. "He was focused. I was a little worried about the lack of playing time, but he was efficient and he was on the puck."
Miller said his goal was to be calm despite whatever traffic Philadelphia threw at him, and to rely on his defense to do its job.
"I told myself no matter what happened out there I was going to stay contained, stay cool,” he said. “I know the first scrum of the (first) period didn't look that way, but from the goaltending aspect of it I wanted to keep it calm. I knew I was going to get help around me. We've been doing a great job collapsing down low and covering backside plays, so I can really wait and make my reads. Especially the second period, there were two instances where I really trusted the backside coverage with our guys and they came through for me. I was able to really feel like I could commit to a shot lane and squaring up and they were battling around me."
It also helped that the Sabres blocked 16 shots.
"It's desperation," Gerbe said of the shot-blocking. "This time of year everyone's going to do it. Doesn't matter who it is, everyone's going to be desperate to block a shot or make hits or do anything to help out."
As well as Miller played, Bobrovsky was just as solid.
"I think Bob answered a lot of critics," said Flyers defenseman Sean O'Donnell. "We never questioned him. As a team we didn't play well the second half and Bob was part of that. But we knew we were revved up to come in here Game 1 and he gave us every chance to win tonight."
The game started at a furious pace, with each team generating 10 shots on goal in the first period. However, both goaltenders were up to the challenge. Miller faced the tougher chances, denying Mike Richards on a backhand from the slot and holding strong against a pair of Flyers power plays.
Bobrovsky made his biggest save when he stopped Gaustad on a turnaround shot from the right side, then denied Kaleta on the rebound.
The tempo didn't slow down in the second period, as the Flyers outshot the Sabres 16-9 and had a few close calls. Back-to-back penalties on Steve Montador and Shaone Morrisonn gave Philadelphia a 38-second 5-on-3 advantage, but their best opportunity was a shot from the point by Kimmo Timonen that Miller trapped in his chest.
The frustration was obvious from a team that had seven 20-goal scorers during the regular season but couldn't put a puck past Miller.
"A loss is not easy and you kind of wonder where you went wrong and what you could have done," said Richards, who had five shots. "But we created a lot, we didn't give up much, and we were pretty tight defensively. We just have to find those pucks. I think four or five times tonight I missed some tips. Pucks were just missing the net and we have to find that."
Both goalies were playing so well, there was reason to believe the game would need more than 60 minutes to complete.
"I didn't think either team was going to score for a while," Ruff said. "Wasn't a lot of the real high-quality type of saves for either goaltender. It looked like it was just going to be one goal that was somehow going to have to go in to win the game."
That goal went in for them, but Ruff knows his team has to be better heading into Game 2.
"I'd like to see us play better," Ruff said. "I didn't think we generated enough opportunities. I told the team we need to get better."
Flyers coach Peter Laviolette echoed those sentiments.
"I think we can be better. There are things we can get better on and we will focus on that (Friday) and be ready to go for Game 2. It's the scoreboard that we need to make sure we have in check. We did a lot of the things we wanted to do, but that's not good enough in the playoffs."
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK
1 - 0 BUF
James van Riemsdyk