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Blair: Kadri shines as Leafs cool off surging Lightning

Toronto Maple Leafs centre Nazem Kadri (43) scores his second goal of the game on Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop during second period NHL action in Toronto on Tuesday January 28, 2014.


Truth is, we are only borrowing Steven Stamkos in Sochi. It is the Tampa Bay Lightning who have a long-term stake to his talents and one of the reasons that Jon Cooper deserves to be a finalist for coach of the year is the way the Lightning have handled the absence of their other-worldly talent.

Cooper remembers his reaction to Stamkos' broken right tibia on November 11: Once he'd handled his post-game responsibilities, he stared at the Lightning's schedule. Forty-one games. Geezus. Cooper's team had 41 games until the Olympic break, and even then he'd keep his fingers crossed about Stamkos' availability.

Say this for the Lightning: They've made it comfortable for Stamkos to focus on his rehabilitation. Tuesday's 3-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre was a rare blip for Cooper's team - the Bolts have won nine of their last 12 games and 19 of 36 games without Stamkos. Even with the loss in Toronto, Tampa Bay is now five points ahead of the Maple Leafs in the Atlantic Division, and are in second place with a pair of games in hand.

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"Huge game," Leafs goaltender Jonathan Bernier said, after stopping 40 of 42 shots. "It wasn't our best ... but it was a four-pointer."

Cooper has done a remarkable job. True, he has Martin St. Louis and the revelation that has been Ben Bishop in goal. But it's the mileage he's been getting out of rookies that is something to behold. The Lightning have 10 players with less than 100 games NHL experience, four of them with less than 50. Going into Tuesday's game they had three rookies in the top 25 rookie scoring (Tyler Johnson, Radko Gudas and Ondrej Palat) and Tuesday night it was rookie Mark Barberio's goal at 17:12 of the second period that sent the teams to the dressing room tied 2-2. Johnson is second for goals among NHL rookies (16) and points (34) and has averaged 18:40 minutes ice time, also the most among first-year players. Palat is second in ice-time, and leads rookies in plus-minus. Johnson leads rookies in face-offs taken; Radko is first in hits and second in penalty minutes.

Injuries to star players surfaced as a topic in this city Monday when Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk left practice with nagging injuries, raising the ultimate 'what if' spectre: How would the Leafs, a one-line team, handle something so catastrophic. Secondary scoring sure would be nice. "We can't depend on the first line night in and night out," captain Dion Phaneuf reiterated after the Leafs win.

Enter Nazem Kadri, the Prodigal Stun of Leafs Nation. Kadri gave the Leafs a 2-0 lead with a pair of second-period goals, and No. 2 was a tally to warm Don Cherry's heart. Kadri started the play in his own end and then steamed down the ice as Carl Gunnarsson threw a long pass for Joffrey Lupul, who passed the puck back to Kadri. The Leaf centre made no mistake and tucked it past Bishop.

Miserable puck management frittered away the lead: Matt Carle's goal at 13:13 came after a Morgan Rielly turnover in the corner. And Rielly was also was caught flat-footed on Barberio's goal, but the night ended splendidly for the home crowd when Tyler Bozak hounded a turnover and van Riemsdyk rifled a pass from Kessel just under the cross-bar for the winner with 4:03 left in regulation.

Kadri had three good chances for the hat trick as the Leafs were out-shot 42-26, but didn't get a sniff with the net empty for an extra attacker. If this game was a statement, it was one helluva timely one.

"I thought as a line we'd been playing tell together," Kadri said of himself and linemates Lupul and Nikolai Kulemin. "It was only a matter of time that we had a game like this."

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Head coach Randy Carlyle liked Kadri's effort in the face-off circle, where he won 10 of 16 draws. He also liked the fact that there was less side to side - east to west, in coach-speak - in his game through the neutral zone. Kadri finished with six shots. "A good game for him is when there's a little physical play on his part and when he's prominent in the face-off circle," said Carlyle.

Bernier made several big saves, but his best came in the third when he snagged a shot from St. Louis that had heartbreak written all over it. "Save of the year," Phaneuf said, matter-of-factly. We'll see. The way the Leafs play, you can make book on a few more candidates.

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