TORONTO - Nazem Kadri picked a good night to have arguably his best game of the season.
The Toronto Maple Leafs centre made two highlight-reel passes and laid a big hit on Andrei Markov in a 5-3 victory Saturday night over the Montreal Canadiens and did so with one of his favourite basketball players in attendance.
"I think he saw that Kobe was at the game and he wanted to impress him, and he did a good job of it," teammate Tyler Bozak said.
Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant was at Air Canada Centre for Leafs-Habs, but Kadri didn't notice him until the end of the first period. By then, Kadri had already drilled Markov and assisted on Cody Franson's goal with a perfect feed.
"I'm happy he came to watch some hockey," Kadri said of Bryant. "I don't know, maybe I can meet him somehow."
Bryant was busy with the Lakers facing the Toronto Raptors on Sunday night, but if he was watching closely Kadri undoubtedly made a positive impression.
More importantly, Kadri used the rivalry spotlight to silence some critics and the trade talk—at least for a little while.
"You guys were on him the other day, so I don't know, maybe you guys fired him up a little bit," James van Riemsdyk said, referring to some extra media attention around Kadri. "But he always comes to play in the big games. We know he's a big-game player, he likes playing on the big stage."
The 23-year-old Kadri has been the subject of reports that the Leafs are shopping him before the Olympic roster freeze. His early answer to that chatter was to finish a check on Markov just 15 seconds in, on the first shift of the game.
"I knew I had to get into the game right away," Kadri said. "Sometimes I do that with my physical play. It was a clean hit, Markov, he's one of their better defencemen, so I felt like I had the hit on him and I just took it and I think that kind of set the tone for myself."
It worked. Not only did coach Randy Carlyle take notice of Kadri making three or four solid hits that had "been absent in his game for a couple weeks," but the sound of the roaring crowd fired him up.
"It kind of just gets the adrenaline pumping through you," Kadri said. "Immediately after that, I felt like I was involved."
Proving he was equal opportunity in making Russian Olympic defenceman look bad, Kadri turned Alexei Emelin inside out before getting the puck to Franson for his goal.
"Pretty sure he got the highlight of the night with that," van Riemsdyk said.
Kadri's second assist came on a cross-ice pass to Mason Raymond on the power play. It was just his second two-point game in the past five weeks.
That's partially a case of growing pains for a young player.
"I would say that we've been patient with Nazy," Carlyle said. "And I think that we've tried to work with him—we're not working against him. And we're trying to provide him with an opportunity for him to continue to grow his game.
"He's a typical young player, and these are learning things or learning curves that young players have to absorb and retain that will allow a long career. And the good players find out early that it's not easy every day and there's a certain program that you have to follow and there's certain things that you can and can't do, that when things aren't going your way on the ice, you have to find another way to be effective."
Kadri was very effective last season as almost a point-a-game player with 18 goals and 26 assists. That earned him a US$5.8-million, two-year contract signed on the eve of training camp.
But it wasn't the kind of long-term commitment that would make Kadri immune to being traded. Two assists—as pretty as they were—won't, either, but it's a good start.
"Well, obviously, it's not a one-game wonder," Carlyle said. "We want consistency, and we need Nazy to continue to step up."
Kadri has 11 goals and 18 assists in 46 games this season. Those aren't out-of-this-world numbers, but Bozak thinks they should be enough to relieve some pressure.
"Everyone expects him to get three points a night every single game," Bozak said. "He's still a really young kid. It's his first full season in the league. He's going to take some time, and I think he's played great for us this year and obviously played amazing last year. I don't think he's going to get 150 points every year, you've got to give him a little break."
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