At a postgame press conference on Sunday, the emotions of Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri were reaching a breaking point as the talk turned to the nastiness he felt the same opposing players had directed at him in previous weeks.
“It’s almost like some guys maybe subconsciously do this because we’re playing on the road, you get tough crowds that might like what you’re doing,” Kadri said. “So we kind of have to play, but just not go over the line.”
Against the Colorado Avalanche on Sunday, he didn’t have to. He had 42 minutes of trouble, but you could tell he never tried that hard. As Kadri jogged toward his team’s bench, a handful of teammates motioned to the stall next to his. Kadri could find almost no peace in that corner of the ice. His hands were shaking. His shoulders slumped. He tried to straighten himself as he walked toward the bench, but only ended up clapping his hands and pulling a face while climbing into the door.
That’s just when his defensive partner at the time, Kasperi Kapanen, walked in.
“Kasperi was a big body to make sure I was safe,” Kadri said after the game. “I needed a little support.”
Kadri had the top-line duties for the Maple Leafs for the remainder of their road trip. Over three games against the Minnesota Wild, Montreal Canadiens and Colorado Avalanche, he had four assists, plenty of cushion in the scoring department. In that time, he also committed three of the four penalties Toronto committed.
He refused to make excuses for his mistakes or his aggressive style of play, but it had been a hard-to-watch series against Minnesota. When Toronto took a 3-0 lead and appeared in control of the series, Leafs coach Mike Babcock threw in the towel. The team’s coaching staff stopped using Kadri and Kapanen together on the same line. In games where the two were on the ice together, they looked fragile.
“No decisions,” Babcock said when asked if Kadri’s move back to the fourth line was a decision he made. “He did what we asked of him. He played a lot of minutes. That’s where we asked him to play. We have said that all along. We had different combinations where he had to be able to play on both ends of the rink. We had some guys out because we just thought it wasn’t the right combination. We just need to do a better job.”
At least Kadri won’t have to go through Colorado, or the other current playoff teams in the league, to find out if those combinations will work again.
“Hopefully it’s the past,” Kadri said. “We’re just ready to play another game tomorrow and go from there.”
After the unexpected seven-game series that ended on Thursday, Kadri seems ready to move on. So does his fellow forward Matt Martin, who has been asked to serve as the Leafs’ fourth line center since Kadri returned. Martin has only two points in his last 18 games but has shown he’s more than just a flamethrower from the point.
“Honestly, I’m pretty excited,” Martin said. “We had a lot of fun during the last couple of years. Obviously, it wasn’t the type of series we wanted. Hopefully, we’ll turn it around this year.”
Kadri made his return to the lineup on Sunday. He came on to the ice shortly after the intermission, about half an hour into the second period. The move was a difficult one, a player who led the Leafs in ice time for much of the series sitting on the bench as Toronto had two players skating on the top line. But Kadri put in a few shifts with William Nylander. The sideshow that had gone on behind the blue line, especially with both Todd McLellan and Connor McDavid taking turns shadowing him on his shifts, has been replaced with a calm, confident body on the forecheck.
It felt like the old days again.