Leafs push past the Panthers

Toronto Maple Leafs' Mikhail Grabovski is tripped up by Florida Panthers' Bryan Allen.  ...

Toronto Maple Leafs' Mikhail Grabovski is tripped up by Florida Panthers' Bryan Allen. (REUTERS/Mike Cassese)

MIKE ZEISBERGER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:10 PM ET

TORONTO - With Halloween less than a week away, Phil Kessel must now brace himself to enter his own personal House of Horrors otherwise known as the TD Garden.

Whether Kessel can finally exorcise all those demons that haunted him a year ago each and every time he faced his former Boston Bruin teammates, well, that remains to be seen.

But after collecting his seventh goal in the first eight games of the season during the Maple Leafs' 3-1 victory over the visiting Florida Panthers Tuesday night at the Air Canada Centre, Kessel is focused on having a breakout game against a Bruins team that traded him away 13 months ago.

With the Bruins and Leafs set to face off in Boston Thursday night, expect Kessel to consistently be reminded of his struggles versus the Bruins last season, a nightmare that featured zero goals and one assist in six games in 2009-10.

It was especially tough in the three games in Beantown, where leather-lunged Beantown fans jeered and heckled him each time he touched the puck.

To be honest, it was the same treatment given to ex-Leaf Bryan McCabe by the ACC faithful Tuesday night. In fact, if you listen closely, you might still hear the boos for McCabe echoing through the rafters.

For his part, Kessel insists he's ready to handle the Beantown Boobirds. And so, too, do his teammates.

"The way Phil is playing right now, I think he could probably score a goal a game," linemate Tyler Bozak said. "I think he's going to be fine there. I think he's ready."

Deep down, you just know that a huge weight will be lifted off his 23-year-old shoulders if he can finally score his first career goal against his ex-team.

"I hope so," Kessel said. "I'm going to try, that's for sure.

"I had a lot of shots against them a year ago. I just have to finish better."

With coach Ron Wilson having promoted Nikolai Kulemin to the Leafs' top line alongside Kessel and Bozak, the unit responded with a pair of goals against the Panthers. Bozak, for one, was particularly impressive, registering his first goal of the season late in the first period to give the Leafs a 1-0 lead.

Having found himself in Wilson's doghouse not so long ago, give Bozak credit for responding in a positive way. In just a matter of days, the young centre went from collecting splinters on the end of the bench to first-star honours at the Air Canada Centre.

"It's very much a relief," Bozak said. "I thought our line worked well together tonight. We showed some good chemistry."

With the trio having played together toward the end of last season, they looked in midseason form for much of the victory, a win which snapped a three-game losing funk for the Leafs (5-2-1).

Bozak's play is particularly vital for Toronto's playoff aspirations.

With centre definitely being the team's Achilles heel, the rumour mill has started churning in full force after GM Brian Burke admitted that trade discussions with a couple of teams have heated up in the past few days.

While all this has been going on, Bozak has been slagged in some circles for not being a legitimate No. 1 centre.

Maybe not. But right now he's the best they have.

Meanwhile, this one ended in controversial fashion.

With the Panthers having tied the game 1-1 in the second, the Leafs broke the tie at 11:02 of the third, much to the chagrin of Panthers goalie Scott Clemmensen and his teammates.

As Tim Brent was preparing to rip a shot from the high slot, Leafs pugilist Colton Orr, skating out from behind the Panthers net, got tangled up with Clemmensen, leaving the veteran goalie helpless as the puck deflected off Orr and whizzed by him. Clemmensen did try to plead his case to the referees but to no avail.

"We were robbed," McCabe said. "It was a (horsebleep) call."

In the end, McCabe had a point.

Kessel hopes to have a few of them Thursday in Boston.


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