TORONTO -- Nazem Kadri finally gave Maple Leafs fans a taste of what they have been waiting for.
Toronto's first-round pick in the 2009 NHL Draft scored the go-ahead goal 5:52 into the third period and James Reimer stopped 40 shots as the Leafs edged the Buffalo Sabres 3-2 Thursday night at Air Canada Centre.
The win snapped the Leafs' three-game losing streak and moved them into sixth place in the Eastern Conference going into Friday's game on Long Island, their last before the Christmas break.
The Leafs also got goals by Phil Kessel and David Steckel, but it was Kadri who became the hero in his first NHL game since Oct. 24. After Derek Roy broke in off the right wing and beat Reimer with a wrist shot 1:28 into the third period to tie the game at 2-2, Kadri put the Leafs ahead to stay by beating Ryan Miller with a wrister from the slot off a nice drop pass by Clarke MacArthur.
"It felt great," Kadri said of his goal. "It's nice to have an immediate impact. Last year it took me a few games to score the first one so it's great to get the monkey off my back. Hopefully there are more to come."
Kadri is known for his offensive skill, but he feels spending most of the past two seasons with the AHL Toronto Marlies has helped his two-way game.
"I was controlling the puck well, when I did get my touches I didn't make any turnovers," he said, "I was making smart plays; it shows what I've learned and that I'm ready to play."
Coach Ron Wilson didn't disagree,
"He made plays, he was good along the wall in our zone, that's what he has to do," Wilson said. "He's smart, he sees the ice, he's got confidence, he skates into holes, and he distributes the puck really well."
It was Kadri's first goal in four games with the Leafs this season and the fourth of his career; the other three came during a 29-game recall last season. Kadri admitted he had some tense moments late in the third period when he took a tripping penalty with the Sabres down a goal.
"I was holding my breath in the penalty box," he said, "but the PK came through."
Instrumental in keeping the Sabres off the scoreboard was the play of Reimer, who has made 40 saves in each of the last two games, and looks to be regaining the form he showed as a rookie last season.
Reimer said he had a lot of help,
"Our penalty-killing was great tonight, they blocked a lot of shots, and 5-on-5 they kept them to the outside, I saw [the shots] all the way in," he said. "We battled hard in the defensive zone tonight, even though they got a lot of shots I was able to see most of them."
Reimer missed more than a month after a collision with Montreal's Brian Gionta on Oct. 22, and Wilson said the young goaltender is just starting to get back to the form he had before being hurt.
"He looks a little more comfortable in there," Wilson said. "To get the win in a tight hard-fought game like that is only going to do his confidence and our whole team's confidence a lot of good."
For the injury-plagued Sabres, who were missing six regulars, the loss was their third straight and fifth in six games. They will get a few days to heal before returning to action at home Monday against Washington.
"We got the number of shots," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said after his team outshot the Leafs 42-31. "We got the chances. We got the lead. We bounced back and had a great start to the third period. We just haven't had much ricochet or have many bounces go our way."
The Leafs had the better of a scoreless first period, outshooting the Sabres 12-6. Miller was forced to make several good saves, stopping a Mikhail Grabovski redirection midway through the period and then a stuff attempt by Kessel a minute later. Near the end of the period, Miller denied Tyler Bozak from short range to keep Toronto off the scoresheet. The Leafs also squandered some glorious opportunities, Matt Frattin fanned on a sweet 2-on-1 feed from Grabovski, and Grabovski fired high on another prime chance.
The Sabres rebounded from their slow start and took control early in the second period, aided by four Toronto penalties in the first 10:37. Reimer was put to the test as the Sabres held a 14-1 edge in shots midway through the period but couldn't score until Jason Pominville got his 11th of the season at 11:49 by banking the puck off Leafs defenseman Luke Schenn and past Reimer for a power-play goal.
Miller made a big save off a Kessel one-timer, helping the Sabres kill a 5-on-3 power play for 55 seconds. But the Leafs finally solved Miller at 15:52 when Steckel swept home the rebound of Schenn's slapper from the point. With the crowd still buzzing after Steckel's sixth goal of the season, Joffrey Lupul set up Kessel off the rush with a backhand pass across the slot and Kessel beat Miller for his 20th goal of the season at 16:54, giving Toronto two goals in 62 seconds and a 2-1 lead.
Kessel joins Chicago's Jonathan Toews, Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos and Marian Gaborik of the New York Rangers as the only players to reach the 20-goal mark this season.
The Sabres had plenty of chances after Kadri's goal, but they continue to struggle offensively and take a 1-4-1 record in their last six games into the Christmas break.
"We wanted to end this on a pretty good note here," a disappointed Pominville said. "Again, the effort was there, and the results weren't. If we keep putting efforts up like this and limit those little [mental mistakes], we're going to get on a roll here."