TORONTO - If Nikolai Kulemin didn't grab the attention of his teammates with an early goal and an assist, he certainly made sure they took notice afterwards.
The Toronto Maple Leafs winger put an exclamation mark on Tuesday's 2-0 victory over the Buffalo Sabres with a solid open-ice bodycheck that brought the Air Canada Centre crowd to its feet. Not only did it send agitator Patrick Kaleta to the ice, but it showed that Kulemin—one of the few key Leafs players having a down year—had come to play.
"I've never seen him line a guy up like that," said Leafs coach Ron Wilson, who has been Kulemin's coach for each of his 275 career NHL games. "It's not in his nature to pound people. He's got this body that can do it and he just came up with that. It surprised our whole bench and it got everybody fired up, I can tell you that."
The victory was complete and composed, a somewhat surprising sight given how much of a nemesis Buffalo has been for the Leafs in recent years.
Even though Jonas Gustavsson finished with 32 saves while recording his second shutout in three starts, few of them could be qualified as difficult. The red-hot goaltender is now 9-2-0 since early November and was savouring his first-ever victory over the Sabres in six career appearance against them.
"We played a team that is usually hard to play against, I'm happy with that win," said Gustavsson.
Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski scored for Toronto (22-15-5), which won all four games on a homestand that started Jan. 3.
The Sabres saw their record drop to 18-19-5—leaving them eight points behind the Leafs in the Eastern Conference standings. Buffalo will be looking to make amends when the teams meet again at First Niagara Center on Friday night.
"We need to get one and it will make the boys in here feel good and hopefully we can string them on from there," said forward Drew Stafford. "We've got a great opportunity in the rematch in a couple days."
Stafford's night got off to a frustrating start and hinted at what was to come.
Shortly after being robbed by Gustavsson's glove from the edge of the crease, he accidentally cleared the puck over the glass from his own zone, paving the way for Kulemin's power-play goal to open the scoring. The Russian forward was parked at the side of Ryan Miller's net and managed to sweep the puck under him at 8:55.
Kulemin secured his first two-point game since Oct. 30 before the period was out by getting the puck over to Grabovski, who lift a well-placed backhand over Miller.
That gave the struggling forward just five goals and 17 points in 42 games—well off pace from the 30 goals and 57 points Kulemin registered a year ago. Despite his offensive struggles, the 25-year-old has continued to impress teammates.
"Kulie's one of those guys that kind leads by example, he doesn't say a whole bunch," said Leafs defenceman Cody Franson. "He's come out with the same work ethic every night."
Before boarding a bus home, Sabres coach Lindy Ruff expressed frustration about a perceived bias he believes officials have against Kaleta.
The Sabres forward hammered Grabovski into the end boards early in the third period and was called for charging. Ruff didn't see any difference between that hit and one Toronto's Nazem Kadri delivered early in the game.
"He's a marked man, definitely a marked man," Ruff said of Kaleta. "When Kadri can do what he did on (Jordan) Leopold which is very similar and Kaleta does it and doesn't leave his feet, I don't think he hit him that hard. It used to be a good hit in the game and you get a penalty—I'm worried about him.
"I'm worried that he can't play his game."
That play came directly before Kulemin laid out Kaleta as retribution for his linemate.
"You know, he told me he did that for me because (Kaleta) hit me before," said Grabovski. "I'm very happy for that because a Russian (stuck up) for a Russian."
It runs even deeper than that. The entire Leafs team seems to have grown together as the season has progressed.
"We're a tight group, we're a close-knit team that supports each other," said captain Dion Phaneuf. "I think it shows on the ice how close we are as a group. We play hard for each other, we stick up for each other."
Notes: Kessel saw his goal streak end at four games and his points streak at eight games ... Kessel and linemate Joffrey Lupul were both held without a point for just the sixth time all year ... Sabres forward Derek Roy and defenceman Christian Ehrhoff remain on the sidelines with upper-body injuries ... Jake Gardiner and Jay Rosehill were healthy scratches for Toronto ... Announced attendance was 19,439.