Leafs finally Phil void

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 12:27 PM ET

Phil Kessel liked it all last night, from the inviting Toronto skyline on the flight in, to the No. 81 sweaters in the Air Canada Centre, the highlight goal and assist by his potential centre.

The new Maple Leaf's enjoyment was shared by his coach, who saw plenty of fighting spirit in a 5-4 overtime comeback against the Philadelphia Flyers, giving the club one more exhibition win than last September, adding to the good vibes so far in training camp.

Kessel could be joining his new mates a little earlier than expected, pronouncing himself ahead of schedule in his recovery from right shoulder surgery. He resumed skating a week before the Leafs acquired him Friday for two first-round picks and a second-rounder from Boston, giving himself four to six weeks to be back, which would beat mid-November projections.

General manager Brian Burke rolled Kessel out like a proud papa to the media before the game, assuring his torn rotator cuff had been properly monitored by the Leafs before the deal and that the soft-spoken 5-foot-10 winger was worth all the fuss and $27.5 million US the next five years.

"He said: 'I intend to earn every penny and won't let you down,' " Burke said. "Phil has already accomplished quite a bit for a young man his age. We think his 36 goals from last year is really a platform, not a peak. He has gotten dramatically better each year and he has dealt with some personal adversity (beating testicular cancer in 2006-07).

"I think the way we play, the way we want to attack, the way we want to utilize speed, it was almost as if someone wrote a script and handed it to Phil."

Kessel certainly read up on the Leafs going back to the off-season, when cracks developed in his relationship with the Bruins and salary cap issues made it clear he'd either be traded or snatched up by an offer sheet.

"I wanted to be here, hockey is 'it' here, I love that about this city," Kessel said. "Obviously there will be pressure on me, but I'll work as hard as I can to help this team out, hopefully get us in the playoffs and go as far as we can."

Yes, the end game continues to change as few mention the term rebuilding without punctuating it with post-season talk.

"We felt even prior to this deal we had enough manpower to do that," Burke said.

And a playoff run would lessen the impact of losing those picks, sending the Bruins further down the order in 2010 and perhaps 2011.

GOING FOR IT

"We don't intend to pick that high (seventh overall) again," Burke grumbled. "When you trade one first-round pick there's a risk, let alone two. This whole job is a high-wire act without a net. We're betting on Phil, taking a chance. That's how it works."

But this was a leap of faith Burke believed he could make, after adding some young collegiate grads and Europeans without robbing the Leafs' thin core roster.

There were already a couple of Kessel sweaters in the stands by the time he was introduced in the first period on the big screen.

"These are the best fans in the league ... it's going to be a great year," he said, with the cheers of 18,609 drowning him out.

A few minutes earlier, Matt Stajan sprang up the middle, splitting the Flyers' defence for a power-play goal. Stajan assisted on a Niklas Hagman goal that began a three-goal rally, including a 5-on-3 from defenceman Francois Beauchemin. Hagman won it at 1:23 of overtime, improving the Leafs' record to 3-1.

Alexei Ponikarovsky had the second Toronto goal, tipping in Mike Komisarek's shot in the latter's Toronto debut.

LANCE.HORNBY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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