February 24, 2011
Kessel's on a hot streak
By MIKE ZEISBERGER, QMI Agency
There are nights when you understand Brian Burke’s thinking.
There are nights when Phil Kessel shows so much offensive flair, so much natural skill, so much domination in both the offensive zone and on the scoresheet that, well, after watching such a show, you can see why the beleaguered Maple Leafs general manager paid such a heavy price to land the gifted winger from the Boston Bruins.
Thursday evening at the raucous Bell Centre in Montreal was such a night.
Phil The Thrill might never be worth the two first-round and the second-round pick Burke sent to shrewd Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli in September of 2009. Among other things, he’s too inconsistent. But every now and then, when he gets on a run like he is right now, Kessel’s natural goal-scoring talents reach the type of elite level that few players in the league not named Stamkos or Crosby can relate to.
By the time the famous Montreal siren had wailed to mark the end of the game, Kessel had scored twice and chipped in with two assists en route to helping the Leafs defeat the rival Canadiens 5-4.
Recently mired in the type of slump that had him questioning all parts of his game — including the team he was playing for — Kessel has responded strongly just when the suddenly surging Leafs needed him most.
In their past five games, Kessel has scored six times. Over that span, the Leafs have compiled nine of a possible 10 points, a streak that shockingly has Toronto just four points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Is it a coincidence that the Leafs have started to heat up at the same time as Kessel? We think not.
After snapping home the highlight-reel game-winner during a 2-1 victory over the New York Islanders on Tuesday, Kessel erased an early 1-0 Montreal lead by scoring back-to-back power play goals in the first period. He later set up linemate Tyler Bozak for a pair of goals to complete his four-point night.
Kessel often feels the wrath of Maple Leafs fans, at times deservedly so. At the same time, he deserves to be applauded when he puts together on of those special nights like the one he had in Montreal on Thursday.
TOP OF THE LINE
Bozak busted out of his 15-game scoreless streak in a big way, collecting two goals and an assist. But the most significant play he made all night might have come at the other end of the ice. With the Leafs nursing a 4-3 lead early in the third period, Habs forward Andrei Kostitsyn appeared to be in position to take a cross-ice feed and convert the two-foot putt for the tying goal. Instead, just as he cocked his stick, Bozak came to the rescue, tying up Kostitsyn at the last second to thwart what looked to be the equalizer. The Leafs would not trail for the remainder of the game. Bozak’s three-point performance was outstanding but it was his work in the defensive end that might have saved the day for Toronto. He was also good in the faceoff circle, a key element as the Leafs head down the stretch in the hopes of snatching a playoff spot ... Bozak and Kessel both turned their games around when newcomer Joffrey Lupul, acquired as part of the deal that sent underachieving defenceman Francois Beauchemin back to the Anaheim Ducks, joined their line. While Lupul has yet to score his first goal as a Leaf, he has shown a penchant of going into the dirty areas and creating havoc in front of opposing net. Kessel’s shots are hard enough to stop when a goalie sees it; when he is screened, it’s an unfair fight, with Kessel usually emerging as the winner.
Hey, Jacques Martin! Sure, Carey Price had a heavy workload during the Canadiens’ recent road trip out west. And, yes, you needed to find the opportunity to get backup Alex Auld in there between the pipes. But why Thursday? Why not start Price against a Leafs team he had shut out in both previous visits to the Bell Centre this season? Sure enough, Auld was yanked before the end of the first period, allowing three goals including a wraparound to Kessel that had a distinctly foul odour to it ... The paint job on Auld’s mask is a tribute to Habs Hall of Famer Ken Dryden. His play certainly wasn’t, however.
I DON’T LIKE THURSDAYS
There is nothing more special in hockey than to be in the Bell Centre on a Saturday night for a Leafs-Habs game. Thousands of Leafs fans — the real ones, not the sushi-eating bankers that occupy the Air Canada Centre — make the trip to Montreal, where they spend much of the game chanting up in the nosebleed seats. Former Leaf Tomas Kaberle said the Bell Centre was his favourite road arena because “sitting in our dressing room, you can hear our fans yelling for us before warmup even starts.” It’s special, all right. That’s why these two traditional rivals should NEVER play in Montreal on any other night but Saturday. So, why Thursday? How many Leafs fans could take off work to go to this weekday game? Who made up this schedule — the same rocket scientists with the CFL who decided to keep the annual Labour Day classic between the Argos and Hamilton Tiger-Cats off the sked this season? Brutal.
Thursday marked the 17th anniversary of the passing of Hall of Fame Habs announcer Danny Gallivan. In tribute to him, we’ll describe Kessel’s first goal as a “cannonating shot” in honour of one of the greatest broadcasters this country has ever seen. Or heard.