TORONTO – It was as though he'd run into a wall. Nazem Kadri bounced off the 255-pound frame of Zdeno Chara with an incredible thud, making little more than a scratch on the Bruins captain.
"He's a pretty solid dude," Kadri laughed a day later. "He's not easy to knock off the puck."
With a good deal of sizzle and swagger, the 22-year-old emerged as a star for the Leafs in the first three months of the regular season, but entering the new terrain of postseason hockey he is still, as one might expect, trying to find his footing. Kadri has registered just a single point in three games against Boston, the finder's fee on Phil Kessel's game-winning goal in an electric game 2 victory at TD Garden.
What's been most apparent early in these playoffs as it pertains to the second-year pivot is the balancing act he is trying to wade; that is to decipher the right time and place to strike with his array of skills versus the lingering danger of costing his team a goal or even a game with a turnover.
"It's just time and a place," he said. "Time and a place. It's what it's all about. When you've got some space you've got to be able to do what players like me do and try and generate some scoring chances. At the same time if the safe play is there and a high-risk play is there it's most likely you're going to be taking the safe one in the playoffs."
Not that the dangerous forays haven't happened. There was the "curl-and-drag" he attempted 10 feet inside the opposition blue-line with the Leafs up 3-1 in that aforementioned victory. "That doesn't sit very well with a coach and he gets to know that," Leafs coach Randy Carlyle noted a day later. "That situation, that's uncalled for. And it's not scolding him, it's the reality of it, we just tell him: 'You continue to do that you're not going to play'."
While perhaps constricting for a player of his talents, Kadri is learning, as he did in the American League under the tutelage of Marlies coach Dallas Eakins, to carefully select a time and place to flash his skills, consequently scoping out "danger" and the need to make a "safe play".
"Just to wait for your opportunities," he relayed of what he'd learned from the postseason so far. "You just can't really force plays … you've just to got to stay with it and be ready to capitalize on that one or two or three chances you get."
Of the playoffs generally he expounded upon the strategic adjustments he's had to undertake. "It's been difficult," said Kadri, who has played with Kessel at various points in the past two games. "Teams really do tighten up in the playoffs and really try and give you nothing. That's why I was saying earlier it's important to stay patient and [make] sure that you're not trying to force play to get yourself into the game, you've got to find other ways to do so."
Agitation, as in the Chara attempt, is one such avenue. "I understand I probably won't knock him down, but sometimes those hits that seem harmless are the ones that end up doing the most damage," he noted.
An offensive dynamo in the first three months of the regular season, Kadri totaled 17 goals and 39 points, along with a 20 per cent shooting percentage in 39 games. But in the month of April his production stalled to the tune of just one goal, five points and a shooting percentage of 4.5 per cent. His quiet start to the postseason has in some ways been a carryover.
Like many of his teammates, Kadri too has struggled in the faceoff dot, 9-22 (41 per cent) for the series, including a 3-12 outing in game 3.
Generating offence against the Bruins has been predictably challenging for the Leafs with a massive game 4 looming at the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday night, just three even-strength goals in the series, a potent showing from a sometimes uncoordinated power-play (four goals) helping the cause immensely.
Under Carlyle's microscope following practice Tuesday was the need to minimize turnovers, overload the crease of Tuukka Rask with havoc and achieve better execution with the aforementioned man advantage.
Kadri will look to be part of the solution.
"Every single game it gets harder and harder," he concluded. "It's not like it's going to get easier from here on out."