Leafs still winless at home

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:07 AM ET

The only thing harder than the hit that nearly knocked Phil Kessel silly in his debut as a Maple Leaf was the self assessment of his own play.

"They brought me here to contribute, they brought me here to score. That's my job," Kessel said after a rousing performance that should temporarily stifle those who think general manager Brian Burke got fleeced in bringing him here from the Bruins.

"It felt pretty good but the hands weren't there. I've got to bury those," Kessel said of some missed opportunities.

So impressive was Kessel's debut last night at the Air Canada Centre -- his first action after missing six months because of shoulder surgery -- that it took much of the sting out of yet another loss.

This time it was a 2-1 overtime defeat to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Leafs remain winless at home and have now lost 12 of 13 starts.

"We brought him here to score, what was that?" Leafs coach Ron Wilson joked afterward. "That's a pretty good first impression."

That it was.

While his hands may not have been golden, Kessel fired a career-high 10 shots at Antero Niittymaki, who was stellar in the Lightning net.

When he got his eighth on target, early in the third, it was a season high for any Leaf and his work wasn't done yet.

After hitting the post in the second period, he was responsible for a shot that rang off the Lightning crossbar in overtime.

Moments later Tampa Bay's Ryan Malone came back the other way and dribbled the game-winner past Jonas Gustavsson with 2:21 remaining.

There was no close-but-no-cigar feeling for Kessel, who has been itching to play for nearly a month now.

"I wanted to get a feel for it and I wanted to win the hockey game," said Kessel, who was acquired in a pre-season deal from the Bruins for two first-round and one second-round draft pick.

While he would rather have had a tamer welcome-back-to-the-NHL moment, Kessel learned in a hurry that he can take a hit.

On his fifth shift as a Leaf, he showed some flash stickhandling through the neutral zone, but he crossed the Tampa Bay blue line with his head down and was clocked with a clean hit by Lightning defenceman Mattias Ohlund.

BIG MINUTES

"I don't remember the last time I got hit like that," said Kessel, who had a small cut inside his mouth but only missed a shift. "I was more worried about my head than my shoulder. I put myself in a bad situation. Clean hit, he got me good."

Wilson had no intention of playing Kessel a whopping 23 minutes and 50 seconds in his much-anticipated debut, but couldn't resist.

"After I saw what he could do, I had to put him out there," said Wilson, who used him for 8:57 on the power play. "His timing isn't exactly where he wants, but he'll catch on pretty quick."

Tampa opened the scoring at 18:32 of the second when Gustavsson, who had been sharp to that point, made a rookie mistake. It started when the Monster tried a long clearing pass that ended up on Ohlund's stick. The Bolts defenceman fired a long-range shot that Gustavsson easily kicked out -- too easily -- as it landed on the stick of Vincent Lecavalier, who deposited it for just his second goal of the season.

Toronto tied it up at 14:56 when Ian White scored his third goal of the season on the power play. That led to what has been the inevitable this season -- a fifth trip to overtime and the fourth in a row.

ROB.LONGLEY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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