This time there was no drama, no braying from fans or grand statement of intentions from management or shrill media criticism that Nazem Kadri was treated unfairly.
Nor should there be. One night after a third-period collapse against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Toronto Maple Leafs took to the ice against the same team with Colby Armstrong back in the lineup and Kadri contemplating future bus rides to Peoria, to borrow the line from that Toronto Marlies commercial that must cause Brian Burke and Dallas Eakins to cringe every time they see it.
Good thing, too, because the back end of the home and home series at the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday night was no place for Kadri. Not yet. It was a man’s game with precious little room and a great deal of rope-‘em – a hard-earned 1-0 win for the Maple Leafs delivered by Clarke MacArthur’s 16th goal at 13:55 of the third period.
It is easy to say that the fact Kadri doesn’t have to clear waivers meant sending him out for Armstrong, back after a concussion, was a slam-dunk. But Kadri made it easier than it should have been, doing precious little with the average 14 minutes and five seconds ice-time he was getting. They weren’t garbage minutes, either: MacArthur and Tim Connolly were alongside him and in one game he had Joffrey Lupul on the same line as head coach Ron Wilson shuffled lines to get Lupul and Phil Kessel going. Kadri arrived as the American Hockey League player of the month, made the good initial impression he usually does – then just disappeared.
Given the way the Leafs have yo-yoed the former seventh pick overall, there’s no guarantee he won’t be back in the NHL some time soon. But if it happens, it will be because someone else has screwed up or been hurt. Or because he was traded as part of a package to land another NHL-ready first line forward - although for all Kadri’s offensive skills this is – what? – two years now that he has shown he is not up to the physical rigors of the NHL, notwithstanding Tuesday night’s rare molar-rattler on the Penguins Paul Martin. True, he’s only 21 but, well, teams do scout the Leafs, right?
When Felipe Alou managed the Montreal Expos he’d talk about how his team would be “whole,” whenever injured players returned. That was the distinct sense of the Leafs Wednesday, as Kadri was joined on the Marlies by Keith Aulie to make way for defenceman John-Michael Liles was welcomed back after a concussion. Mike Komisarek was a healthy scratch.
One night after a track meet that turned into a 5-4 Penguins shootout win and led Penguins coach Dan Bylsma to comment “that’s probably the most scoring chances – by 10 – that we’ve given up all year,” the clubs slogged their way through two periods, combining for 33 shots in 40 minutes of mostly disorganized fits and starts. A work of art it wasn’t; chock full of fatigue and suffocating checking. Wilson said he saw “teaching moments" about what it takes to make the playoffs in Tuesday’s loss and in Wednesday’s win – the latter a game in which one mistake, one bad decision can cost the team a game. Wilson had MacArthur, Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski matched up against the Penguins top line of Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Chris Kunitz for the second game in a row and, yes, Grabovski was on late again despite his misplay on Tuesday that led to the Penguins tying goal.
“They clogged it up,” MacArthur said of the Penguins. “That’s the kind of game you’ll see in the playoffs, where you’re matching lines all night long.”
The Leafs intentions were signaled early when defenceman Luke Schenn, who was particularly robust, worked over Malkin along the boards using his arms, gloves, elbows and stick. It was James Reimer’s first start in goal since Jan. 17 and he had his moments in the first period, when the Penguins went out of their way to fire pucks high to his glove side, but he was steady in the third period especially, when the Penguins fired six shots through heavy traffic. MacArthur’s goal developed after James Neal’s tip beat Reimer over the shoulder but hit the cross-bar.
MacArthur sneaked off the Leafs bench on a line change and trailed in as the play headed up ice, finishing off a three-way play with Grabovski and Kulemin by tucking the puck past Brent Johnson, who was giving Marc-Andre Fleury a night off after 23 consecutive starts. A nifty goal on a night for the stout-hearted. No place for boys, this one, and when Wilson was asked about Kadri, he said he and Aulie were a part of “our future, moving forward, because inevitably you’re going to have injuries.” So Kadri’s back where he was: with the Marlies, no longer able to force the organization’s hand by performance but needing a hand to get back; needing the misfortune of others yet again.