In the weeks leading up to the Leafs’ first-round tilt with the Boston Bruins, the question of whether or not they could handle the boogeyman Bruins after last season’s seven-game loss boiled down to how far their depth could take them.
At the time, many argued last year that the Leafs were already a deep team with a shot at taking down the Bruins. However, some poor decisions coupled with the reality of a young Boston team that was better than advertised ultimately doomed the Leafs to failure.
Enter Nazem Kadri, the Leafs’ game-changer in this series.
It may seem odd to pinpoint Kadri as a game-changer in a year that’s seen the Leafs add John Tavares, while Kadri has struggled a bit to find an identity (or goals) in a new complimentary role as the club’s third-line centre. And make no mistake, John Tavares and the Leafs’ top-six were essential to the Leafs’ Game 1 win in Boston on Thursday night.
But the question this year remains the same – how far can the Leafs’ depth take them? Nazem Kadri is central to that question. Here’s why the answer this year is different than last:
He Wasn’t There Last Year
Wingels wasn’t standing up, it was from behind, kadri left his feet, he contacted his head. It’s a bit worse imo. pic.twitter.com/HmWKcA4WGf
— juno (@junotheleafs) April 13, 2019
While dwelling on last year’s series is not the goal here, it’s worth noting that Nazem Kadri – then in a top-six role – likely irreparable damaged the Leafs’ chances of making it out of Round 1 last year.
This hit on Tommy Wingels in Game 1, you may recall, resulted in a three-game ban – steep for the playoffs, but then again, he was a repeat offender.
The Leafs never recovered. After dropping both contests in Boston, the Leafs only managed to win one game at home for the remainder of Kadri’s suspension, and Nazem Kadri returned for Game 5 with his club already facing elimination in a 3-1 series deficit.
The Leafs may have won the following two games, but the damage had been done. Having to play three playoff games with Tomas Plekanec as your second-line centre isn’t exactly a recipe for success, I hear. Playing with Auston Matthews as your second-line centre and Kadri at No. 3? That’s not too shabby.
He’s A Pest Without Falling Into The Bruins’ Trap
The message going into this series for the Leafs was clear – don’t play into Boston’s game. If you do, you will lose.
By that logic, the Leafs should be playing their skill-first, speedy game, out-pacing a slower Bruins team and using their dynamic offensive depth to chip away at the Bruins’ back end. In Game 1, the Leafs did just that – and they passed with flying colours.
There was also a little bit of this, though, courtesy of Nazem Kadri:
Kadri takes down DeBrusk and continues chirping at him on the bench. pic.twitter.com/fnmfvdAgiG
— Flintor (@TheFlintor) April 12, 2019
What separates Nazem Kadri from the aforementioned narrative is that he isn’t playing into the Bruins’ game – he’s just a pest. And a skilled one at that.
Kadri’s offensive talents are complemented by a chippy style of play that isn’t shared by the rest of his team, but that’s essential to Kadri finding his identity and thriving in this series. You have to think if Kadri’s clicking – and he’s under the Bruins’ skin – the Leafs have got to be happy that the veteran Leaf is finally finding his groove.
He Provides Not Just Depth, But Chemistry
Many were quick to complain about Mike Babcock’s decision to separate Auston Matthews and William Nylander heading into the postseason, particularly after the two seemed to be rekindling their old magic down the stretch.
Here’s some magic for you, though:
William Nylander 🚨
Insane pass by Kadri to spring Willy on the breakaway. 3-1 Leafs. pic.twitter.com/MQ2oJtTNTm
— Flintor (@TheFlintor) April 12, 2019
That’s third-line winger William Nylander scoring a beautiful breakaway goal off of a breathtaking pass from third-line centre Nazem Kadri. That means the Boston Bruins need to worry about two full lines of Leafs offence before thinking about William Nylander and Nazem Kadri.
The Leafs’ depth will be the difference-maker in this series. If their depth shows up, and they’re able to fully optimize that facet of their lineup, plays like this will happen. Nazem Kadri will be confident and shine all-around in Game 1 instead of being ejected and suspended for playing hot-headed and off-brand. If Nazem Kadri shows up for the rest of this series, as he did in Game 1, the Leafs’ depth is truly here, and they’re hungry to win.
Onward we go to Game 2.