TORONTO — With the Maple Leafs down 2-0 to Washington and the building dead, Toronto centre Nazem Kadri took matters into his own hands in the first period Monday night.
Kadri, generously listed at six feet and 195 pounds, came out with a rampaging shift that saw him flatten Caps defenceman Brooks Orpik twice.
The first hit happened between the Esso and Sportsnet sign on the corner boards in the Washington end. Orpik had just eluded Connor Brown only to be crunched by Kadri, who cross-checked Orpik for good measure once the two got back up.
Meanwhile down the wall, linemate Leo Komarov was exchanging love taps with his stick with fellow Russian Alex Ovechkin.
Before he finished his shift, Kadri went back for seconds with a high hit on Orpik that sent both men flying at the benches.
The crowd erupted.
"Two pretty big hits that definitely got us going," said Auston Matthews, who scored for the Leafs on the next shift.
Toronto fourth-liner Matt Martin, no stranger to collisions himself, also acknowledged the importance of those hits.
"We hadn't done a whole lot to get the crowd into it," he said. "I think Nazzie went out there and kind of took it upon himself and threw a couple of big hits. Obviously Mattie responded with a goal right after that.
"That was definitely a big shift."
Matthews scored but the Kadri line fuelled the fire, helping start a comeback that finished with a 4-3 win thanks to a Tyler Bozak power-play goal 1:37 into overtime — with Kadri getting an assist.
After the third straight overtime of the best-of-seven series, Toronto leads two games to one.
In the locker-room, Kadri took a geometry-like look at playoff hockey and hitting.
"There's not much space. You've got to fight and grind," he said. "I just felt the need to take a couple of opportunities and take a couple of quick hits."
Out of his hockey equipment, Kadri is a slender man. But Martin says the outside isn't what counts.
"He's feisty. It's what you've got inside ... It's part of who he is. He's a passionate guy. He's a physical guy and he's got a edge to him. He always has. I've played against him plenty to know he's not a guy who's going to back down from anyone."
Martin says Kadri's not the only Leaf with a "burning fire" inside. He pointed to 160-pound Mitch Marner's penchant for finishing checks and Matthews responding in kind when he gets hit.
"It's kind of fight or flight mentality and I think we've got a lot of fight in this room," said Martin.
Asked how he manages to hit so hard, Kadri was candid: "Just vulnerability, catching guys with their heads down.
"Obviously I'm not trying to hurt anybody out there but a clean hit's a clean hit. I mean they're doing the exact same thing to us. We're not going to be a group to be intimidated. If we get knocked down, we're getting right back up and going after them."
Kadri, 26, did more than frustrate. His second-period goal brought the Leafs to within one goal at 3-2 when his shot from the point — he was covering for Morgan Rielly who had gone to goal — deflected into the goal off Orpik's backside as he tangled with Connor Brown in front of the net.
Monday's game featured 73 hits, with Toronto leading the way with 42. Kadri and Zach Hyman had six apiece for Toronto.
The Leafs, in the words of coach Mike Babcock, were "amped up, to say the least."
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press