TORONTO -- Nazem Kadri continues to produce for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Kadri set a new career mark with three assists as the Maple Leafs snapped a five-game winless streak with a 4-2 victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning at the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday.
With the win, Toronto is hoping it can regain some traction in the race to the Stanley Cup Playoffs after going 0-3-2 since a 5-4 victory against the Ottawa Senators on March 6. The Maple Leafs are currently in sixth place in the Eastern Conference with 36 points.
Holding a 1-0 lead after 20 minutes, the Leafs blew the game wide open before the halfway point, with three goals in the first 7:22 of the second period en route to a 4-0 lead after two periods.
Dion Phaneuf began the barrage 52 seconds into the second when he scored his fifth goal on a high drive from the blue line that eluded Mathieu Garon to make it 2-0.
Later, with Toronto pressuring, Phil Kessel came streaking in on Garon, but could not control the puck. As two Lightning defenders converged on Kessel, the puck bounded to Tyler Bozak, who was left alone in the slot and ripped home his eighth goal of the season at 6:53.
Bozak's goal prompted Lightning coach Guy Boucher to pull Garon, who allowed three goals on 13 shots. His replacement, Anders Lindback, got a rude awakening as Nikolai Kulemin greeted him with a goal less than 30 seconds after Bozak's marker.
After going eight games without a goal, Kulemin has now scored twice in as many games.
Kadri caught the Lightning defenders on their heels, breezing over their blue line before passing it back to Kulemin, who was trailing. Upon receiving the puck, Kulemin dragged it around defenseman Radko Gudas before wiring a shot past Lindback for his fourth of the season.
With each passing game, Kadri is showing that he can give a boost to any player who plays wing on a line he centers.
"I'd like to say I can play just as good with anybody," Kadri said. "I think that's part of being a professional -- it's being able to be put in those situations where you can succeed with different people. "You are not always going to stay with the same guys all year. Things get mixed up. The lines get juggled and you have to adjust."
Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle gave Kadri's line (he skated with Kulemin and Joffrey Lupul on Wednesday), plenty of shifts against Tampa Bay's top line, which contains two of the NHL's deadliest threats in Martin St Louis and Steven Stamkos.
"That's what I have wanted from Day One -- I have wanted to be that reliable guy," Kadri said. "I think Randy is starting to understand that I'm always working hard every single day to make myself a better player and a better all-around player for this team. I want to be a guy that can do everything, not just one-dimensional."
Carlyle says that going forward, Kadri will continue to face the opposition's best players.
"We are going to test Kadri against the best players," Carlyle said. "He wants that, he cherishes it and tonight it worked for him."
Meanwhile for the Lightning, Garon's exit turned out to be temporary. He reappeared in goal with 12:16 to go in the game as Lindback headed for the dressing room for an injury that Boucher would not reveal afterwards.
While the Maple Leafs took the play to the Lightning, Tampa Bay was not without its chances in the middle period. Tyler Johnson took a centering feed in the blue paint, but James Reimer got his stick on the tip-in attempt. He finished with 26 saves.
Rookie-scoring leader Cory Conacher took it upon himself to get his team on the board as he drove to the net with less than 30 seconds to go, but Reimer was not fooled by his move to the backhand and closed the five-hole to thwart the opportunity.
Conacher – a Toronto-area native with dozens of family members and friends in attendance -- and Gudas would score late in the game, but it was a case of too little, too late.
"It was awesome," Conacher said of his lone visit to the ACC this season. "I tried to stay as long as I could in the pre-game skate to get a feeling for the ice and for how different it was. Instead of watching it, I was on the ice,"
With his goal, Conacher now leads all rookies with 22 points. However, as much as he was in awe, he was equally disappointed in the effort displayed by himself and the team.
"It was unfortunate that we did that to ourselves," Conacher said. "We are going to have to try and bounce back because we are going to have to get that game back we are going to have to get those two points back and hopefully rebound in the next game."
With the loss, the Lightning were unable to gain any ground in the battle for a postseason berth. They remain five points back of eighth place in the East.
"We weren't ourselves. I don't know why," Boucher said. "It took us too much time to find our legs. We are a hard working fast team and it didn't look like that in the first half."
Just as he did in his first game back from injury one game ago, Lupul continued to make up for lost time as he opened the scoring with his third of the season at 6:56 of the first period. After taking a hard cross-ice pass from Carl Gunnarsson, Kadri was able to zip the puck to Lupul, who was unmarked in the slot and able to redirect the puck behind Garon.
"I put in a lot of work while I was out of the lineup and [I'm] just trying to get back and help the team," Lupul said.
Arguably the most valuable player on the Maple Leafs last season, Lupul missed 25 games with a broken forearm during the club's third game of the season.
"I said when I came back, I didn't think there would be a long feeling out process or getting back into the swing of things, and there hasn't been," Lupul said. "I feel normal. I feel how I usually do on the ice."
The Lightning received a scare less than a minute into the third period when defenseman Victor Hedman was on the receiving end of a high hit from Lupul in the neutral zone. Hedman was forced to briefly head to the dressing room, but was able to return to the game. Lupul received a two-minute penalty for an illegal check to the head.
"I was backchecking. I believe it was [Kadri] had him angled and he kind of cut to the middle," Lupul said of the play. "I wasn't even truly tracking him to go hit him, he just kind of came back in to me. I didn't realize I got him in the head. I saw he was hurt. Again, I have to see the replay, but by no means would I go after [him] and try to hit him in the head."
Boucher did not want to comment on the collision, but said that he was certain the League would review it.
Defenseman Jake Gardiner was in the starting lineup after being recalled on Tuesday from an extended stint in the American Hockey League. He led all skaters with 8:14 ice-time in the first period and finished with one shot, one hit and a minus-1 rating in 19:20 of ice time.
He feels his game has come a long way since he was reassigned to the AHL's Toronto Marlies after just two games with the Maple Leafs earlier this season.
"It's night and day," Gardiner said. "I'm definitely making better decisions and using my skating more. I'm just playing to my abilities."