Maple Leafs 2, Sabres 0
Nikolai Kulemin had a goal, an assist and one crushing hit that caught the attention of his coach.
Kulemin capped his solid performance in Toronto's 2-0 victory over the Buffalo Sabres with a solid open-ice check that brought the crowd to its feet Tuesday night. Not only did it send agitator Patrick Kaleta to the ice, but it showed that Kulemin - one of the few key Maple Leafs players having a down year - had come to play.
''I've never seen him line a guy up like that,'' said 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.''
Jonas Gustavsson had 32 saves for Toronto (22-15-5), which won all four games on a homestand that started last Tuesday. Mikhail Grabovski had the other goal.
Gustavsson recorded his second shutout in three starts to improve to 9-2 since early November. It also was his first victory in six career appearances against Buffalo.
''We played a team that is usually hard to play against, I'm happy with that win,'' Gustavsson said.
The Maple Leafs moved eight points ahead of the struggling Sabres heading into Friday's rematch at First Niagara Center. It also gave them a three-point cushion over ninth-place Winnipeg.
''We need to get one and it will make the boys in here feel good and hopefully we can string them on from there,'' Sabres forward Drew Stafford said. ''We've got a great opportunity in the rematch in a couple days.''
Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller has enjoyed a tremendous amount of his success against the Leafs during his career, but has struggled against them the past two seasons. Fans at the Air Canada Centre derisively chanted ''Miller! Miller!'' as he fell to 1-5 against Toronto in his last six starts.
Toronto got off to a fast start, taking advantage of a rough night for Stafford.
Stafford was all alone in front of the Leafs net with an early chance but couldn't lift the puck over Gustavsson's glove. A few minutes later, he inadvertently cleared the puck over the glass in his own end. On the resulting Leafs power play, Kulemin corralled the puck and slid it under Miller to open the scoring at 8:55.
The struggling Russian also played a key role in Toronto's second goal. He did a nice job to get the puck through to Grabovski prior to taking a check and his linemate went on to beat Miller with a well-placed backhand at 17:55.
It was the first two-point night since Oct. 30 for Kulemin, who had a career-best 30 goals and 57 assists last year but has struggled so far this season.
''Kulie's one of those guys that kind leads by example, he doesn't say a whole bunch,'' Maple Leafs defenseman Cody Franson said. ''He's come out with the same work ethic every night.''
That was more than enough for Gustavsson, who was solid when called on, particularly in the third period, and recorded his third career NHL shutout.
Before boarding a bus home, Sabres coach Lindy Ruff expressed frustration about a perceived bias he believes officials have against Kaleta.
The 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,'' Grabovski said. ''I'm very happy for that because a Russian (stuck up) for a Russian.''
NOTES: Toronto F Phil Kessel had his goal streak end at four games and his points streak at eight games. ... Sabres F Derek Roy and D Christian Ehrhoff remain sidelined with upper-body injuries. ... Jake Gardiner and Jay Rosehill were healthy scratches for Toronto. ... Announced attendance was 19,439.