TORONTO - Phil Kessel can deny it all he wants and hide the smile while he’s at it, but his teammates knew better.
The winning goal in the shootout against his old team and a goaltender, Tim Thomas, who stood on his head all night, was just too rich.
“It’s huge for him and we all know it in here,” teammate Tyler Bozak said after Kessel’s clincher in a 3-2 shootout win at the Air Canada Centre.
“When we play these guys, all the attention is on him and the deal and everything. Every guy in here knows we’d take that deal every day of the week.”
Kessel still doesn’t have an official goal in his eight games against the Bruins since he was dealt here prior to last season.
But playing his first full game at centre with the Leafs, Kessel finally had his say.
At least as big as his winner was a play that won’t show up on any game sheet. After Mikhail Grabovski got tossed from the face-off circle in the final minute of regulation, Kessel won the draw which led to Kris Versteeg’s goal to force overtime at 19:17.
“It’s the best,” said winger Colby Armstrong said on behalf of Kessel. “He’s a pretty easy going guy, but he loves it. Playing against your old team, you always want to get that goal.”
Kessel’s reaction for public consumption: “The win is the most important to tell you the truth. We needed it.”
No one more than No. 81, who had six shots on net and a post before he finally hit paydirt.
It would be difficult to overstate the significance of the return of Armstrong, who was back after 16 games with a hand injury.
He caused mayhem in front of the Bruins net, laying the lumber on towering Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara whenever he got the chance. “He brings experience and stiffness,” Wilson said .... Armstrong played more than 23 minutes and other than being winded at the end of a couple of shifts brought a huge presence. And the longer the game went, the more his teammates seemed to follow his lead ... Rookie Nazem Kadri may have had his best game as a Leaf getting an assist on the first goal with a slick offensive move and following with a picture-perfect backhand to beat Thomas on the first shot of the shootout ... “I haven’t seen that (move),” Leafs head coach Ron Wilson said. “We warned him on the bench that (Thomas) has a poke check.”
It’s difficult to imagine a better save happening any time this season than the one Thomas made on Francois Beauchemin in overtime. The Leafs defenceman got full wood on a shot that seemed headed for the empty net before Thomas’ glove darted out of nowhere. Thomas, for the record, ranked it among his personal top 10. “That one was made for TV,” Thomas said ...Thomas on Kessel’s winner in which he made the initial save but slid back into the net with the puck underneath him: “I made the save but couldn’t stop sliding. Every arena has different slipperiness of ice. They make it harder on goalies that way.” ... Bruins rookie Tyler Seguin (and the first player Boston has iced in the deal for Kessel) had an assist and a nice SO goal of his own that beat J-S Giguere ... Rookie Keith Aulie logged over 21 minutes, mostly playing alongside Beauchemin. “With the way some (Leafs defenceman) have played, there’s no reason to limit his ice time,” Wilson said.
Leafs GM Brian Burke refused Hockey Night In Canada’s request to appear on the pre-game show on Saturday. “He made it clear he did not like what has been said on our show,” host Ron MacLean wrote in his blog on CBC.ca. “I explained a few bits about the balance we’ve brought the value of his appearance to our show and his fans. Brian quipped, “Methinks, the lady doth protest too much.” ... Bruins coach Claude Julien on Kessel’s winner: “It’s a shootout. Take it for what it is.” ... The Bruins continued with a recent trend among visiting teams here, scrapping the game day skate. Edmonton did the same thing on Thursday as did Vancouver recently. One theory is that the opponents want no part of the Toronto media circus which is even more effective because it increases the attention on the home team ... It never got beyond wishful thinking, but Seguin will not be in Buffalo for the World Juniors which begin later this month.