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leafs 6, ducks 2

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri (43) battles for the puck against Anaheim Ducks defenceman Sami Vatanen (45) during second period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Tuesday, December 16, 2014.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Randy Carlyle may not like it – not with a 24-year-old player – but there may be some anointing going on in Toronto over the holiday season.

And Nazem Kadri will be the beneficiary.

The Toronto Maple Leafs beat the top team in hockey on Tuesday, downing the visiting Anaheim Ducks 6-2 to extend their hot streak to 12 games (10-1-1).

It's been a run built on a lot of familiar things – great goaltending, timely scoring, getting outshot (41-27 this night) etc. – but the biggest change has been the opportunity afforded Kadri, who once again was terrific in a win.

He took on the tough assignment of facing Ducks centre Ryan Getzlaf, sharing that load with Peter Holland, and Kadri, for the most part, outplayed the big man.

He even added a beautiful insurance goal midway through the third period that will be playing on the Air Canada Centre's highlight reels for months.

What's not to like?

"I don't want to anoint him like you seem to have done already," Leafs coach Randy Carlyle had said to the media before the game. "I'd like to take it slow. I think we're experimenting with Nazzy right now."

The experiment?

Make his line the team's true first line – at even strength anyway – and see what happens.

What's happened to date is that the contrast between the Leafs top two lines couldn't be more stark. With Kadri on the ice, the Leafs were just shy of a 50 per cent possession team (49.2) over their last 11 games coming into Tuesday's win.

When he and linemates Dan Winnik and Mike Santorelli weren't on the ice that number was an ugly 40.4 per cent.

A lot of that stems from the team's preordained first line with Phil Kessel and Friends, which has been hemmed in its own zone often even as the Leafs have won games.

At 5-on-5, Kadri's line has outproduced them over long stretches, however. Prior to facing the Ducks, they had 17 points in their last 11 games compared to only 10 for Kessel, Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk, who finally broke out in a big way on Tuesday.

"I think he's relishing the opportunity to play up against some of the better players," Carlyle said of Kadri. "He's taking that role on. I think it's the sum of the parts [on the line]… they've been a reliable group on the ice and they respect the puck.

"They're not trading chances. They'll create their own chances, cycle the puck in the opposition's zone; they've kept the puck down low. They've kept the opposition's best players 200 feet from our net."

The dramatic difference in production and possession,  however, has been harder to see given the fine work that Kessel's line continues to do on the power play, which boosts their totals.

What's apparent these days, however, is the Leafs have two top lines: one at even strength (Kadri's) and one with the man advantage (Bozak's).

Given their relative strengths, that's likely okay.

Without a Getzlaf, the Leafs are better off creating specialized units and tailoring usage to their strengths and weaknesses, something Carlyle has done a better job of than last season.

He even admitted to heavily sheltering what has been to this point called his first line – playing them only against the Ducks third and fourth units on Tuesday – and it paid off with a better night territorially for that trio than they have had in weeks.

Whether or not this becomes a long-term strategy will be interesting, especially when Carlyle no longer has last change on the many, many road games – 17 of the next 22 – coming up between now until February.

"We didn't play them up against Getzlaf or [Ryan] Kesler," Carlyle said of JVR, Bozak and Kessel. "So they should in my mind have a good night if they're up against the youth of Anaheim right now."

They did some of the early damage offensively, too, even as Kadri's line carried the defensive load.

Bozak scored first, chipping in a rebound after James van Riemsdyk bulled to the net late in the first period.

Then Joffrey Lupul added an odd one from the side boards to open the second, giving Toronto a 2-0 lead 21 minutes in.

From there it was a familiar show for the Leafs: try to hang on, hang around and put things away by getting a couple timely goals.

After Lupul's, they were outshot 11-4 to close the second – including a pretty shorthanded goal by Ducks d-man Sami Vatanen. But Leafs netminder Jonathan Bernier had another stellar night, and Toronto got an insurance goal from David Booth – his first as a Leaf.

Then Kadri's beautiful deke made it 4-1 and that was enough.

Enough to chase Ducks starter Frederik Andersen in favour of Ilya Bryzgalov. Enough to extend their streak to 10-1-1.

Enough to potentially keep the Kadri-versus-the-toughs experiment going at least one more game.

"Nazzy's done a heckuva job for us," Carlyle said. "We don't want to take that away from him. But he's still a young player that is cutting his teeth and finding ways to be more responsible. That's what we've asked him to do."

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