The Toronto Maple Leafs have their budding star to thank for pulling them out of their season-worst slump. Now, they look for him to keep pushing the club toward its first playoff appearance in nearly a decade.
Toronto hopes Nazem Kadri can continue his stellar play on Thursday night as the Maple Leafs visit the Buffalo Sabres, a team who may be without its own top scorer as it still searches for more consistency.
The Maple Leafs (16-12-2) were stuck in a season-long five-game losing streak prior to Wednesday's 4-2 home victory over Tampa Bay - and it was the 22-year-old Kadri stealing the show as he matched a career best with three assists.
Kadri, who leads the team with 30 points on 11 goals and 19 assists, has left coach Randy Carlyle with little choice but to pit his line against the opponent's top unit each night.
"We're going to test Kadri against the best players," Carlyle said. "He wants that, he cherishes it and tonight it worked for him."
It doesn't get much better than Tampa Bay's trio of Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Cory Conacher, but it was Kadri - along with linemates Joffrey Lupul and Nikolai Kulemin - looking impressive as Kulemin and Lupul each scored a goal.
It was only Lupul's second game back after he missed 25 with a fractured forearm, but Kadri believes the three are finding a rhythm together. Kulemin has 15 points in 30 games.
"We knew we had to come out with our foot on the gas pedal," Kadri said. "We're pretty much on the same page offensively. We know where each other are going to be before we're there."
The Sabres (11-15-4) have had difficulty all season establishing a rhythm and fired Lindy Ruff on Feb. 20 after the team started 4-10-1. Buffalo has been better under interim coach Ron Rolston, going 7-5-3, but still not quite good enough with 18 games left and the Sabres currently on the outside of the playoff picture, trying to avoid missing out for the second straight year.
Making the postseason could be even more difficult if leading scorer Thomas Vanek misses time. Vanek did not practice Wednesday and is day-to-day with a hip injury he suffered in a 3-2 overtime win at Montreal on Tuesday.
Rolston said Vanek's playing status will depend on how much pain he can tolerate, though he was seen walking with a limp outside the team's locker room on Wednesday.
"It's certainly a possibility, but we'll have to see how he is in the morning," Rolston said of Vanek's chances of playing Thursday. "How he's moving, more than anything."
Meanwhile, Buffalo still ranks last in power-play percentage (12.0) and has surrendered five two-goal leads in the third period this season - including a 2-0 edge on Tuesday before recovering for the victory.
"It's getting there in how we play," Rolston said. "We're getting closer. But it's still the consistency of things."
Toronto has won two of three meetings this season, but the Sabres have won three straight and 10 of 11 at home in this series.
Phil Kessel has 11 points over his last seven games and seven in his last five contests against Buffalo.