In what’s been a long, hard road of a season for Nikolai Kulemin, the Toronto Maple Leafs winger hopes this marks the turning point.
Kulemin scored the winning goal, added an assist and rocked Patrick Kaleta with a big hit late to put together his best night of the season on Tuesday, leading the Leafs to a 2-0 win over the ailing Buffalo Sabres.
After the game, Leafs coach Ron Wilson noted that the quiet Russian’s big night had the feel of a Gordie Howe hat trick -- albeit without dropping the gloves.
“Kulie will never be in a fight,” Wilson said, chuckling. “So we had to find a different way for him to qualify. Maybe it was more like a Ted Lindsay hat trick?”
Whatever it was, it was certainly welcomed by Toronto -- and especially on a rare night when both the team’s leading scorers, Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, didn’t have a point, only the sixth time that’s happened this season.
Kulemin’s contributions were also well-timed given this was the Leafs first game of the second half, allowing him to begin it with his second two-point night of the season after scoring just four times in the first 41 games.
A year ago, he had his fifth goal by mid-November en route to a breakout 30-goal campaign.
“I’ve just been doing my best,” said Kulemin, who was on the ice long after practice ended Monday and has a reputation as the team’s hardest worker despite his slow start. “I’ve gotten chances almost every game. I have to put some in. It’s been a little tough.”
While the goal and assist stood out, it may have been Kulemin’s hit that made the biggest impact on his teammates.
After Kaleta took a run at Mikhail Grabovski and went off for charging early in the third, Kulemin knocked over the Sabres tough guy with an open-ice hit on his next shift, drawing a prolonged cheer from the fans at the Air Canada Centre and from the Toronto bench.
Kulemin and Grabovski are close friends and long-time linemates, but it is rare to see either make that kind of physical impact on the game.
“It’s not in his nature to pound people,” Wilson said. “He’s got this body that can do it. He just came up with that. That surprised our whole bench. It fired everybody up, I can tell you that.”
“Like he told me, he did that for me because [Kaleta]hit me,” Grabovski said. “I’m happy for that because Russians stay with Russians.”
“Kulie, he’s one of those guys that leads by example,” defenceman Cody Franson added. “He doesn’t say a whole bunch. You know he’s going when he's getting involved like that. He always works hard. You always get that. You really appreciate guys like that.”
The win was Toronto’s fourth in a row to start 2012, continuing an unbeaten streak they’ll take into Buffalo -- with an eight-point lead over them in the Eastern Conference standings -- for a rematch on the road on Friday.
Monster shines again
Leafs starter Jonas Gustavsson did the rest of the heavy lifting in the game, making 14 third-period saves to earn his fourth win in a row and second shutout in his last three outings.
Over his last 11 starts, The Monster has gone 9-2-0 with a sparkling 2.27 goals-against average and .929 save percentage.
He has played so well that Wilson may even contemplate starting him in back-to-back games this weekend.
“He’s confident,” Wilson said. “He’s making key saves when we need him. He’s playing really well. No soft goals. I can’t think of the last time he let a soft goal in.”
The other story of this night was again how disciplined Toronto was, as they didn’t give up a single power play to the Sabres and have had to kill just two total in their last three games.
Miller’s woes continue
The biggest single factor in the Sabres slide into mediocrity this season, meanwhile, has been Ryan Miller, who hasn’t been the same goalie since winning the Vezina Trophy in 2009-10.
After an off season last year, Miller has sunk even deeper in the first half in this one -- including in his play against the Leafs.
While Miller had dominated Toronto in the past, with a 25-12-0 record coming into Tuesday’s game, the loss was his fifth in a row at the Air Canada Centre. (The ACC fans even took to serenading him with mock cheers for an easy save to open the third period.)
He fell to 1-5-0 in his last six games overall against the Leafs, with a very un-Miller-like 3.21 goals-against average and .898 save percentage.
Somehow, Toronto has figured him out -- with Wilson’s push to get more traffic in front of Miller likely part of the reason.
Ruff sounds off
It became merely an aside after the game, but Sabres coach Lindy Ruff wasn't happy with the call on Kaleta and let the Toronto media know.
"That was tough to figure out," Ruff said. "They had one player who carried the puck two strides. They had [Nazem]Kadri, who hit our player [Jordan]Leopold in the same fashion. There were calls there I couldn’t figure out. Kaleta just can’t hit anybody anymore. It’s just that he can’t. If he hits somebody, it’s a penalty. He knows that he can’t hit anymore.
"He’s a marked man, definitely a marked man. When Kadri can do what he did on Leopold, which is very similar, and Kaleta doesn’t leave his feet. I don't think he hit him that hard. It used to be a good hit in the game, and you get a penalty. I’m worried that he can't play his game."
The Leafs continued to put more distance between themselves and their division rivals, with the chance now to go 10 points up on Buffalo with a regulation win in Friday’s game.
Another loss for the Sabres could make Toronto uncatchable the rest of the way, even with 39 games to play.
The Leafs four consecutive wins to open 2012 have also pushed them up firmly into the top eight in the Eastern Conference after they had dipped to 10th late in 2011.
A loss by the New Jersey Devils late Tuesday would mean Toronto moves into sixth spot.