Maple Leaf fans have to be thinking they have seen this script before. Solid start to the first half of the season and perfectly positioned to make the playoffs entering the stretch run, the Leafs looked poised to end their seven-year playoff drought.
As March ushered in springtime, they began a downward spiral much like their February slump a season ago.
With no wins in their last six games (heading into Wednesday vs. Tampa Bay), the Leafs have allowed the chasing pack to catch up and now face a dogfight to the finish to hold onto a playoff spot. The scenario is too similar to last season's collapse for most fans to bear.
Great opportunities are born of difficult situations, and for one Leaf in particular, this challenge represents a golden chance.
Ever since Toronto traded two first-round selections and a second-round pick for Phil Kessel, the talented forward has been the focal point of Toronto's unforgiving hockey universe. While Kessel has shown his talents over stretches, he has yet to seize the moment and prove himself as the consistently elite player Maple Leaf fans need him to be.
Thriving in the hockey-crazed market of Toronto is difficult for any player, but the reason names like Gilmour, Clark and Sundin are held in such high regard was their consistent effort, along with them showing up when their teams needed them most.
Stepping up and leading this team can help erase much of the doubt that has been cast on Kessel's value.
While very productive last season (37 G, 45 A), he was and has been inconsistent throughout his time in Toronto. Like any scorer, he has periods when the puck does not find the net. During these times, the other facets of his game seem to fade as well.
To his credit, Kessel has improved his passing this season. He seems to be getting his head up more and looking for teammates who are in a better scoring position than he is.
What Toronto needs from Kessel is to put all of his talents on display, with as much focus and energy as he can, to lead the Leafs through this difficult period. He cannot disappear during this closing run. He must be at the forefront, carrying and willing his team to positive results.
He may already be warming up at the right time, as he has posted seven points in the last four games. The key will be continuing to build on these games going forward.
If Kessel can put together a stretch of high-level play to end the season and carry Toronto to the playoffs, it may give him the confidence he needs to take that next step towards being the torchbearer for the franchise.
He has the talent to meet this challenge. The question is if Kessel is ready to take advantage of this opportunity.