TORONTO - The mercurial Nazem Kadri has been a hot-button topic for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the past.
But under coach Randy Carlyle, the 22-year-old offensive dynamo is managing to choose his moments and make them count.
Kadri had three assists and linemate Joffrey Lupul added a goal and an assist as the Maple Leafs snapped a five-game winless streak with a 4-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday night.
Kadri, Lupul and Nikolai Kulemin won the battle against the Lightning's top line of Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Cory Conacher. Stamkos, the league's top goal-scorer, was limited to one shot.
Kadri's three points tie a career high (he had a hat trick in the Feb. 28 game against the Islanders). The shifty centre had a chance at a fourth point but was hauled down in front of goal by Teddy Purcell midway through the third period.
Rookies Radko Gudas and Conacher scored consolation goals for Tampa Bay (13-16-1) in the third, spoiling James Reimer's shutout attempt.
Tampa outshot Toronto 28-26.
Kadri leads the Leafs in scoring with 30 points on 11 goals and 19 assists. And Carlyle said his plan is to put Kadri's line against the opposition's top trio.
"We're going to test Kadri against the best players," he said. "He wants that, he cherishes it and tonight it worked for him."
Former coach Ron Wilson complained about Kadri's defence but Carlyle says the youngster was never negligent in that area.
"The biggest emergence of Nazem Kadri is where and when in the game to try to use the skill moves," Carlyle said. "He was always good defensively. ... What happens in your transition from junior to pro hockey, it's the number of times that you expose yourself to the high-risk, high reward and where you do and when you do it on the ice.
"That's really been the learning curve for Nazie. We always knew that he had skill."
The Leafs had been off since a 5-4 shootout loss to the visiting Winnipeg Jets on Saturday, with their last win coming March 6 - a 5-4 decision over visiting Ottawa.
"We knew we had to come out with our foot on the gas pedal right away," said Kadri, who pointed to good chemistry with Lupul.
"We're pretty much on the same page offensively," Kadri added. "We know where each other are going to be before we're there."
Lupul, meanwhile, pointed to Kulemin's skills.
Toronto gave up 16 goals during the five-game winless slide with Reimer, 0-1-2 during that run, allowing eight goals on 76 shots.
Tampa, while 4-6-0 in its last 10, came into the game on back-to-back wins over Carolina and Philadelphia that saw it score four goals in each game. The Lightning were without star forward Vincent Lecavalier, who reportedly suffered a broken left foot March 12 against Florida.
"It took us too much time to get our legs," complained Tampa coach Guy Boucher. "We're a hard-working fast team and it didn't look like that the first half."
"We looked like we were waiting to see what was going to happen out there," he added. "I don't know if it was because the guys froze or it was a road game -I can't tell you. But it wasn't a good game to start."
The game marked the return of 22-year-old defenceman Jake Gardiner, a member of the all-rookie team last season who has been playing in the American Hockey League for the Toronto Marlies this season after recovering from a concussion.
"I thought he was really good tonight," said Phaneuf. "He definitely adds to our team."
Earlier in the day, the Leafs placed high-priced, little-used defenceman Mike Komisarek on waivers.
Gardiner, who had 10 goals and 21 assists in 43 games with the Marlies this season, partnered John-Michael Liles and led all Leafs with 8:14 ice time in the first period. He finished with 19:20, fourth best on the team.
Defenceman Mark Fraser pushed Toronto's league-leading number of fighting majors to 30 early in the second period when he tangled - successfully - with B.J. Crombeen.
Up 4-0 at 7:22 of the second period, Tampa made a goalie change. Garon, who gave up four goals on 14 shots, was pulled in favour of Anders Lindback.
Lupul was front and centre throughout the night, dispatched to the penalty box early in the third for an illegal hit to the head that floored six-foot-six defenceman Victor Hedman. Lupul hit Hedman with his shoulder, leaving the big Swede dazed.
"By no means did I go after him and try and hit him in the head," said Lupul.
Garon returned to goal in the third period, as Lindback went to the dressing room. Boucher called it a lower-body injury.
"Hopefully it's not something that's going to keep him out for long," Boucher said. "He was doing really good for us his last four or five starts. Hopefully it won't last very long."
The first and last Toronto goals were beauties.
Lupul - making his 99th appearance as a Leaf - opened the scoring at 6:56 of the first period, completing a nifty tic-tac-toe passing play with Kadri and Carl Gunnarson that found him alone in front of Mathieu Garon as checker Alex Killorn went walkabout. It was Lupul's third goal in two games since returning from a broken forearm.
Kulemin then padded Toronto's lead to 4-0 with his fourth on the season after neatly evading the trailing Gudas and snapping a wrist shot from the slot.