Kessel needs better rematch

STEVE SIMMONS, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 9:39 AM ET

Phil Kessel shot the media relations man a look in the corner of the Maple Leafs dressing room that was anything but subtle.

Break this thing up, he said with his eyes. I don't want to talk about this.

This is tonight's game against the Boston Bruins. This is the second in an ongoing series of Kessel versus the Bruins. This is an important mountain for this new Leaf and this Leafs team to climb.

And this isn't going away any time soon.

The first appearance of Kessel vs. the Bruins -- a 7-2 Boston win -- was an unmitigated disaster. Tonight is Round 2, an opportunity for Kessel to demonstrate that he can give and receive, playing against the team that found flaws in his game and in his personality, playing against the coach who basically had little use for all his skill.

"I struggled," Kessel said of his first plate appearance against the team that dealt him to Toronto. "I don't think I can struggle that bad twice.

"It's just another game. We're going to go in there and try and win a hockey game."

CHALLENGE

It isn't just another game for the rapidly improving Maple Leafs. It's a large challenge for a team that has responded well to challenge of late. It's an enormous challenge for the brisk Kessel, as much as he wants to play down the importance, as much as he stares ahead, hoping the questions will go away.

This is what it is to be a star in the National Hockey League. There are expectations. There are games that mean more than others.

Tonight, Kessel will have company every time he is on the ice in Boston, just as he did a week ago. The Norris Trophy winner, Zdeno Chara, will be set up as his dance partner. And everywhere that Phil goes, Zdeno is sure to follow.

"You don't have to prove anything," said Kessel. But in truth, he has everything to prove. He just turned 22. He has been lighting up the league in his first season in Toronto. Whatever flaws the Bruins may have found have not necessarily been evident with the Leafs. But to be what Kessel wants to be, to be the star the Leafs believe he will be, he has to be able to play against Boston. He can't come up small in big games.

"He knows what to expect now," said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. "He won't be as nervous or anxious ... He stood around most of (last Saturday), sat back on his heels. He had no energy when the game started.

"He was all psyched out. It was like he had nothing left, no sugar in the tank. He was giving us 25-, 30-second shifts. With Phil, (normally) I can't get him off before a minute. I saw he was gassed, right off the bat."

It is too bad that the Leafs are playing a rested Bruins team on the second night of back-to-back games. But what isn't bad is what the Leafs are doing on the ice right now. They are winning games against teams ahead of them in the Eastern Conference standings and Wilson has finally found the best way to utilize his talent. He has a scoring line with Kessel, Matt Stajan and Alexei Ponikarovsky, which didn't score last night, and a checking unit centred by the reliable Wayne Primeau, which takes care of his opponent's top line at even strength.

Last night, the losing New York Islanders didn't score a goal at even strength. The Leafs controlled the Isles' top scorers 5-on-5 just as they had done to Atlanta a few nights earlier. The little pieces are coming together. The big piece up front will be on display for all to see tonight in Boston.

Wilson has seen this before. He coached Joe Thornton on his return to Boston, which was anything but memorable.

"Joe Thornton was kicked out (of the game) on his first shift of the night," he recalled.

For the record, Kessel did nothing quite so memorable in his first bout with the Bruins.

STEVE.SIMMONS@SUNMEDIA.CA


Videos

Photos