Out-of-control Nazem Kadri delivers hit, this time to Leafs
TORONTO — The playoffs rolled on Monday night without Nazem Kadri, the Leafs’ miscreant third-line center who dealt himself out of the Stanley Cup party with a numbskulled cross-check to Jake DeBrusk’s kisser.
Nope, there is nothing subtle about Kadri. To that point, he was the Leafs’ best performer in the first two games of the best-of-seven series against the Bruins. Until he chased DeBrusk up against the boards, jacked the shaft of his stick across the second-year winger’s jaw, and then promptly skipped down the runway at TD Garden, not to be seen again until he appeared before the NHL’s Department of Player Safety Monday afternoon in Midtown Manhattan.
“What is my expectation? I don’t have any,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said earlier in the day, before his team fought back for a 3-2 win in Game 3. “The beauty of it is — Naz went out of the game. Naz is a good player, an important guy on our team . . . listen, he’s injured . . . move on.”
No, not really. Kadri was in fact healthy enough to play here in Game 3, but he clearly was not of right mind, and particularly not on the right side of the rulebook, when he smacked DeBrusk. He owns a robust toolbox of skills. He is prone, shall we say, to losing his tools.
Shortly before game time Monday, the DOPS released its ruling: the tempestuous 28-year-old was done, disqualified for the remainder of the series.
“Instinctively, Naz wears his emotions on his sleeve,” said John Tavares, the Leafs’ classy No. 1 center, also talking to the media crush earlier in the day. “And he cares about the group. He’s a big part of the fabric in this room. Obviously, I don’t think the result was what he intended, but that is playoff hockey at times . . . it gets to a point like that. We have to do the best we can in controlling the emotion and focusing on what really matters — that’s the play between the whistles and playing hard and trying to work.”
With Kadri banished to the postseason badlands, the Bruins were left with a touch more breathing room in a series that easily could go the full seven games. It’s equally clear that the Leafs are a lesser bunch without Kadri because grit and snarl, though rooted in crude Original Six ways, remain a central theme to playoff hockey, no matter how many times we’re reminded that speed and skill are the new treble and bass of the 2019 game.
The Leafs are perfectly capable of advancing to the second round on speed and skill. But with Kadri gone, the Bruins will be ever more convinced to stick with the grinding, physical play that had the Leafs bottled in their own end of the ice much of Game 2 and ultimately caused Kadri’s cap to pop.
The Bruins pushed back Saturday after a soft, lifeless Game 1. The Leafs in Game 2 only had a banshee-like Kadri pushing back, and he pushed too far.
Without a Cup title since 1967, the Leafs are still learning playoff ways. Painfully so. It’s a young club, anchored in the modern laser-hockey era, yet to understand how to mix courage and brawn with their sharp pivots and quick legs. They must drive a veteran, proven coach like Babcock absolutely bugnuts.
Meanwhile, Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy presides over a veteran bench, one not as fast and slick as the Blue-and-White squad, but one more accustomed to hockey as it’s played in April, May, and June.
“Bergy and March and Z have played a lot of playoff series,” said Cassidy, noting the experience of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and Zdeno Chara. “They’ve been in two [Cup] finals. They know the temperature goes up.”
Case in point in Game 2: Chara’s actions after Kadri felled DeBrusk. Towering over the turtled Kadri, the 6-foot-9-inch Chara pawed at the Leafs center, the way a grizzly might ponder shredding a porcupine. But rather than suffer the certain prickly quills of Kadri, Chara settled for some harmless tossing, as if preparing Kadri for a salad mix. He made his point and stayed in the game.
In Babcock’s world, Chara moved on.
“If we take a hit, you can’t just chase a guy down,” noted Cassidy. “You’ve got to have some level of discipline and sort out how you are going to change that momentum. It is not about getting a guy back who hits you. There’d be no players left on the ice . . . there are so many good hits. “
Cassidy’s image of an empty sheet, absent 40 uniformed players all ordered to the showers, drew a laugh from the assembled media corps. Beyond the chuckle, he had made a perfectly poignant point, without directly naming Toronto’s absent No. 3 center.
If you want to play like the reckless Kadri, it is ultimately a loser’s game.
“You’ve got to manage that . . . whatever you want to call it . . . your aggressive tendency or your willingness to want to stick up for a teammate, or exact revenge, or whatever,” said Cassidy.
“I think we have veteran guys that can calm the guys down. So as a coach I don’t need to do that when you have veteran guys.”
One of those Boston vets, David Backes, was back on the job in Game 3. Scratched for the opener, the aging winger supplied critical roster ballast when Cassidy brought him back Saturday.
Backes enjoys the thump and thunder. Scale up the physical “buy-in” and Backes, slow of leg but wide of shoulder, has his thumb on the scale. It tips his way.
“Oh, yeah, the adrenaline is flowing,” he said, when asked if heavy games like Saturday all but pump pure oxygen to the bench. “When you’re used to having to think about moving your feet, that is the last thing you have to think about — they’re moving on their own. The only thing you have to worry about there is overextending — chasing hits or overextending a shift. All of a sudden you are running on 110 octane, the engine’s running hot . . .”
Kadri ran hot, and it ran him out of the series. Speed is of little use when the DOPS rules it’s time to cool your jets.