In The Nik Of Time: Kulemin Proving He's Been Worth The Wait For Leafs

Jon Neely@@iamjonneelyAnalyst IJanuary 15, 2010

TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 07: Nikolai Kulemin #41 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates against the Detroit Red Wings at the Air Canada Centre on November 7, 2009 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Well, it looks as if the Leafs finally have a first line that's clicking, at least for the past two games anyway. And the player making things work right now is one who most people would have not pegged at season's start to be a cornerstone for the Leafs.

Oh how things change, especially for Nikolai Kulemin, who has almost single-handedly brought the Leafs first line of Kulemin, Tyler Bozak, and Phil Kessel back to life in the two games just passed.

Sure, the addition of a young, talented Bozak to center the line has given the trio's some much needed passing skill up the middle. And yes, Kessel is always lethal when he has someone feeding him the puck; not to mention he seems to have found a passing touch of his own lately.

But the guy that is making it all work right now is Kulemin, and though it took some time for him to find his game, he is proving to be more than worth the wait.

The new first line for the Leafs have combined for eight points over the past two games, Kulemin scoring in both, but showing he can do so much more than just that.

Ron Wilson said of his recent play, "Kulemin is doing an unbelievable job hunting down pucks and banging, blocking shots, and doing a lot of the little detail work that doesn't get recognized."

And he's right; so consider his play recognized, Ron.

He was a healthy scratch for four games earlier in the season because he simply blended into the game and was hardly doing enough to be effective on the ice. But something happened along the way, and he has now become noticeable at both ends of the ice.

On offence he is moving his feet, keeping his head on a swivel, and if not dishing out nice passes, he's finding the open areas and finally putting the puck in the net. He now has nine goals and 17 points this season.

And on defense he has been the best of the Leaf forwards at back checking and seems unsatisfied until he retrieves the puck from his opponent. He is deceptively strong along the boards and is great at using his body to force players off the puck. Almost Mats Sundin like, the way he uses his weight to maneuver along the boards while guys just simply bounce off him.

His play has been steadily improving for much longer than the previous two games; it's just been more noticeable now that he's found chemistry with his linemates—which likely means the newest addition to the club, Bozak, will get a chance to continue his stint on the line with the big club.

Kulemin has been criticized for much of his time in Toronto, not being consistent and never scoring enough goals. But you'll be hard pressed to find someone complaining about his play these days.

He's not only improved his own play and seemingly getting better every night, but his efforts have clearly rubbed off on the two guys playing with him on the first line.

It's only two games, and they only won the second of those two, but the way he and his line is playing is a huge boost of confidence for the struggling Leafs. A boost of confidence or a sigh of relief, for now is what this team and their fans needed.

It’s not fair to say that the success of the team the rest of the way relies on how Kulemin plays, but if he can continue to play at this high level at both ends of the ice, while maintaining the new-found chemistry with Bozak and Kessel, the Leafs dimming playoff chances might get a little bit brighter.  

But whether or not his improved play results in the team rising in the standings, Leaf fans can be sure that Kulemin has finally found the game we've all hoped he would.

And just in the nick of time.