SUN Hockey Pool

Kessel's linemates need to step up

STEVE BUFFERY, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 7:02 PM ET

If they Maple Leafs plan to break out of a mini-scoring slump, they’ll probably need their best goal scorer, Phil Kessel, to start producing.

Kessel has just one goal in his last eight games, but somewhat more alarming is the fact that the sniper hasn’t recorded an assist in the last 10. Kessel has 14 goals and eight assists in 30 games with the Leafs, second in the team goal-scoring department. Niklas Hagman has 16 in 11 more games.

But Leafs head coach Ron Wilson, who will also coach Kessel on the American team at next month’s Vancouver Olympics, isn’t about the throw Kessel under the bus, suggesting that his linemates, centre Matt Stajan and winger Nikolai Kulemin have not capitalized on chances set up by Kessel.

Stajan as 11 goals and 29 points in 41 games, to lead all Leafs forwards, while Kulemin has six goals and as many assists in 38 games.

“(Kessel) needs also to have the people he’s playing with score,” Wilson said yesterday, following the team’s morning skate at the Air Canada Centre. “You can make plays, but that doesn’t guarantee somebody’s going to put the puck in the net.

“I think Staj has to play a lot better in terms of setting (Kessel) up and finishing off opportunities that Phil’s created. Kule’s done a great job on the fore check, but he sometimes struggles scoring. I’d like to see all three of those guys contribute more.”

Wilson would also like to see centre John Mitchell step up and score some goals.

Mitchell returned to the lineup last night against the Florida Panthers after missing the last 20 with a knee injury, suffered on Nov.23 against the New York Islanders.

The Oakville native has speed and size but has managed just two goals and nine points in 22 games.

Mitchell was matched with Hagman and Alexei Ponikarovsky, who recorded four points the last time the Leafs faced the Panthers on Nov.27 in Florida, and Wilson plans to show no mercy in terms of ice time despite the fact that Mitchell has missed 20.

“He’s got to come in full bore. We don’t have the luxury of limiting (his ice time),” said the coach. “If he can’t play four games in five nights, then we probably we’ll have to get somebody up (from the Marlies) to replace him.”

Mitchell was biting at the bit yesterday to get some action, joking that he might have drove his wife, Mia, a little bit crazy sitting on home when the Leafs were on the road. As for his return, the personable centre plans to but keep his game simple.

“When you have an opportunity to shoot the puck at the net, you’re going to shoot it at the net. Those are just the little things you want to try to do,” he said. “Just try to keep it real simple out there, use my wingers and use my D-men as much as I can at every opportunity.”

The Leafs have only scored two goals in their last two games, and continue to struggle on the power play, with one extra man score in their last eight games.

“I don’t think we’ve won enough battles down low to recover loose pucks. We get in, we’ll have one chance, and that’s it,” Wilson said. “It’s not sustained pressure in the other team’s end. We have to do a better job in wanting the puck and we’ve got to — again — find a way to get some more traffic to the net. We’ve gotten away from that.”


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