Lesson learned

TERRY KOSHAN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 4:26 AM ET

Quit some nasty habits, stay in the lineup.

Phil Kessel has found it pays to listen to his coach. Kessel has been producing points at an eye-popping clip --his 15-game points streak is the longest active run in the National Hockey League -- but has been just as valuable to the Bruins when he does not have the puck.

Kessel, who was a healthy scratch for some playoff games last spring, is a big reason the Bruins are looking down at every other team in the Eastern Conference with a 21-5-4 record. Bruins coach Claude Julien had stressed to Kessel that he had to be more responsible, and the 21-year-old listened.

"Just cheating on the offensive side," Kessel said yesterday during a conference call when asked about some of Julien's no-nos. "You've got to think. You would rather not give up a goal when you're in the defensive end. You want to score goals, but you can't give up goals to score goals either. With Claude, I think it's just more defensive stuff, play good two-way hockey."

Kessel has formed a potent line with Marc Savard and Milan Lucic, and with 31 points (19 goals and 12 assists), is just six points off his career best of 37 set last season. Kessel is plus-12 heading into the Bruins' next game, on Thursday at home against the Maple Leafs.

Overall, the Bruins have to go down as one of the big pre-Christmas surprises in the NHL. Michael Ryder and Blake Wheeler have been solid additions. Wheeler is making a push to be considered for the Calder Trophy, while another freshman, Matt Hunwick, stepped into the lineup without missing a beat. Goalies Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez have been lights out.

As for Kessel, there is the simple fact he is maturing. And he has managed to deflect some major challenges that have come his way.

He was a hot prospect a few years ago when he was eligible for the 2006 entry draft, but fell to fifth overall. During his rookie season, he won a fight with testicular cancer. Getting scratched in the playoffs was a wakeup call.

"You never realize how much you miss it until it's gone," Kessel said of the time he missed with his sickness. "When you're not playing, you don't know what to do. When I look back at it, I just couldn't be someone who didn't play hockey. I love it so much.


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