Kadri starting to dream of playoffs as Leafs continue stretch run

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri talks about his success plus the difference between the team now and earlier in the season.

BUFFALO, N.Y. – The cliché answer would be to say you’re simply focused on tonight’s game.

But with the Toronto Maple Leafs on a 7-1-1 stretch that has brought a playoff spot tantalizingly close, Nazem Kadri acknowledged that there was a little more on his mind while preparing to face the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday.

"It’s hard not to future-trip a little bit, especially the guys that were here for the last playoff run," Kadri said after the morning skate at KeyBank Center. "Just to see how immaculate and how fantastic the entire energy was, and how electric the atmosphere was.

"But we do it have to take it game by game because we know things can drastically change with a week of playing."

Amazingly, Kadri is one of only five players remaining on the Leafs roster from that memorable seven-game series with Boston in 2013.

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All of the losing in the meantime resulted in a massive roster purge, and helped the organization add Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner, among others, in the draft.

Now the team is rebounding in a big way – already 16 points up on last year’s total, with nine games to still play – but in need of a few more victories to secure a playoff spot. For the veterans like Kadri that lived through the dark ages, the mind tends to wander a bit.

"It’s hard not to," said Kadri, who will play in his 400th NHL game. "It’s hard not to. I think it’s just human nature because you work so hard to achieve a goal – you set a goal at the beginning of the season – and as the year comes to a close you start to realize that it’s closer within reach.

"It’s very exciting and it’s very motivating as well, just to give an extra incentive to put our foot down on the gas."

The 26-year-old centre has played a leading role in the turnaround, hitting 30 goals for the first time in his career despite facing the toughest competition at even strength.

As a whole, the Leafs feel they’ve taken huge strides in their ability to limit chances with strong positioning and puck control. The last two weeks has seen them deliver emotional wins over Tampa, Boston and Columbus.

"I think it takes some time with each group because it’s different for each group to figure out a way for them to be successful and for them to believe in it, too," said coach Mike Babcock.

They enter play Saturday sitting third in the Atlantic Division at 85 points – three ahead of Boston and the New York Islanders, who face one another at Barclays Center tonight.

It’s a far cry from the last few years, where Toronto was essentially playing out the string at this stage of the season.

"(They) weren’t where we wanted to be, and you’re kind of on the outside looking in," said Kadri. "Just kind of watching the playoff performances, and guys doing well and teams doing well, and you kind of wish to be in that position one day.

"And here we are closer to achieving our goal."

They could do themselves a huge favour by adding two more points on Saturday night.

The Sabres are down three defencemen – including No. 1 man Rasmus Ristolainen, who is serving a three-game suspension – and licking their wounds near the end of another disappointing campaign.

Kadri says that playing in Buffalo "almost seems like a home game" for the Leafs because of all the fans that make the trip down the QEW from Toronto. He scored twice here during a March 2013 game and jumped into the glass after the first one – a moment preserved by a memorable photo that shows everyone in the stands wearing Leafs sweaters.

"That’s one of my favourite pictures," said Kadri. "I’ve got it actually on my wall. It seems like you’re at the ACC in that picture with the amount of Leaf fans in the backdrop. That’s just been the story really anywhere we go, the Leaf Nation follows us and supports us through thick and thin.

"It was frustrating in years past, but I think now the future’s bright."

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