ABBOTSFORD, B.C.--Don Cherry has singlehandedly made Nazem Kadri into North America's most famous minor pro hockey player by using his Coach's Corner platform to rail against Maple Leaf GM Brian Burke on almost a weekly basis for refusing to make Kadri a full-time NHLer.
There are pluses and minuses to such notoriety. On Saturday night, it meant that with the home town Abbotsford Heat offering the home fans little to cheer about in a half-empty, half-interested arena, those in attendance may not have been familiar with every enemy skater but they sure knew to boo Kadri every time he touched the puck.
"I don't know what I did to them," smiled Kadri afterwards. "It's not the first time it has happened in an away rink. I think it's a good thing."
Even more of a probable motivation for Kadri was to respond to the good-natured ribbing he'd taken from Marlies teammate Colton Orr earlier in the day after choosing not to go on the ice for an optional morning skate after not being on the ice the day before as the club travelled to British Columbia for Game 3 of their AHL best-of-seven series against the Heat.
"You better be good tonight," chided Orr, currently ineligible to play in the AHL playoffs because of roster limits but a strong veteran presence in the dressing room for head coach Dallas Eakins anyway.
Kadri sure was good. More important, he was very good very early, scoring just 58 seconds into the game on a lightning-fast wraparound past Abbotsford goalie Leland Irving, a quick start the Marlies rode to a solid 4-1 triumph and a two games to one lead in the series over the Calgary Flames minor-league affiliate.
"That was huge," said Kadri about his goal. "The last two games they got the first goal and we were kind of on our heels a little bit. We talked today about having a good start and getting that first goal. Once we did, you could see them tighten up a little bit.
"We just took off from there."
The 21-year-old Kadri is the most dynamic offensive player in this series, and alongside Matt Frattin and Jerry D'Amigo, he has centred the most dangerous line in the series. After dropping the opener, the red-hot Marlies have used that unit effectively to help win the past two games and move to 5-1 in the post-season, and in so doing have assured themselves of at least one more home game this spring, either in this round or the next.
Games 4 and 5 are in Abbotsford on Tuesday and Wednesday, with Game 6 back in Toronto, assuming the Heat get at least one home win in this 2-3-2 series format. The winner of the series will play the survivor of the San Antonio-Oklahoma City series in the Western Conference final.
Frattin, Marcel Mueller and Phillipe Dupuis also scored for the Marlies. Nicolas Deschamps, picked up during the season from the Anaheim organization for Luca Caputi, had three assists and was plus-3, while netminder Ben Scrivens stopped 20 shots for the win. The Marlies have scored nine goals in two games against a defensively stout Heat squad that had won 11 straight before losing Game 2 in this series.
"The early goals really helps to draw them out of their defensive system and forces them to play a way they're not comfortable," said Eakins. "Both teams were a bit tired after all the travel on Friday. We made mistakes that were driving us coaches crazy, but so were they."
Kadri had a goal and two assists in that Game 2 triumph and continues to produce in the AHL post-season, another level in his progression to the NHL.
"I want to be one of those players who steps up when the team needs me to step up," said Kadri. "I'm playing with some great players. It's like they can't guard all of us all the time.
At one point, Kadri was on the ice with D'Amigo and Frattin, while Jake Gardiner and Jesse Blacker were on the back end, a fivesome that just might be on the ice with the Leafs as a group in the near future.
"It's very interesting," smiled Kadri, who has six points in the Marlies six playoff games. "But at the same time, when we're on the ice together, we're not thinking about that kind of stuff. I know the Leafs didn't get the results they wanted this season, but I think the future is definitely bright."
Kadri admits he gets a kick out of Cherry's spirited pokes at Leaf management on his behalf.
"Really, it's nice to have him have my back a little bit," said Kadri, who played for Cherry in the CHL Top Prospects game in his draft year. "There were times I was a little down on myself and I was wondering why I was wasn't getting those minutes in the NHL. Having him think so highly of me made me want to push myself even harder. Just to make what he's saying make sense."
Abbotsford changed goaltenders for the game after Danny Taylor played well in the series opener but was shaky in Game 2. Irving wasn't much better in Game 3 while facing only 26 shots, while the decision to insert winger Akim Aliu in place of enforcer Pierre-Luc Letourneau Leblond didn't pay dividends either.
Abbotsford's top forward, Krys Kolanos, has gone silent since ripping up the first round with four goals and four assista in a three-game sweep over the Milwaukee Admirals. He has only one assist in three games against the Marlies, with Eakins deploying the defensive pairing of Korbinian Holzer and trade deadline acquisition Mark Fraser against Kolanos as often as possible.
The only discouraged Marlie might have been forward Greg Scott, a native of Victoria, B.C. who had his mother and grandmother in attendance but was miffed at himself after missing a second period breakaway while the Marlies were shorthanded.
"How many of those have I missed?" said the good-natured Scott in mock exasperation as he hustled off to visit with his relatives.