Phil Kessel: Has The Maple Leaf Forward Exorcised His Boston Bruins Demons?

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Within the opening minute of Saturday’s third period at TD Garden, Phil Kessel caught a break, turned it into a breakaway and let it complete its course en route to a breakthrough. It was the one and only surefire way to buck a personal trademark trend.

Within four seconds of teammate Mark Fraser blocking Dennis Seidenberg’s slapper in the defensive end, Kessel scooped up a feed from Nazem Kadri and bolted onto Boston Bruins property. There, he pulled off a move not unlike the ones he made that used to trigger renditions of “Kernkraft 400” in the exact same building four, five and six years ago

Kessel swooped down the center lane and beat former Boston ally Tuukka Rask on a 19-foot wrister, augmenting his Toronto Maple Leafs’ advantage to 3-1 at the 53-second mark of the closing frame.

That goal, which stood as the eventual clincher in a 4-2 Toronto triumph, was his fourth in 24 career meetings with his original NHL employer. It was his first point in two postseason bouts. 

Perhaps most tellingly, it marks the first time he has tuned the Bruins' mesh at even strength. His three goals in 23 previous games, regular season or playoffs, were all on the power play.

Granted, the Bruins did not have their towering, elite blueliner, Zdeno Chara, on the ice at the time. Going forward, there will be plenty more overlapping shifts in what so far has been a Chara-Kessel mismatch. 

At the same time, Kessel’s Saturday strike can be a boost in confidence and commitment to seeking out seams in the future, whether Chara is monitoring him or not.

Once he starts stoking that habit, he will inevitably pick up his fair share of points against Boston. That is, things will balance out for him the same way they do for all of the other top scorers against Boston and the same way they generally do for him against all of the other teams. 

Translation: Kessel will not turn a full 180 degrees and unleash an otherworldly stream of productive carbonation on the Bruins after even strength was his uneven weakness for so long.

But that will be more of a credit to Boston than an indictment on Kessel, as it so often is for top scorers when they go up against a Bruins blue-line brigade that is thoroughly engaged. 

In other words, everyone can now declare the Boston-Toronto card “just another game” for the 25-year-old striker and really mean it. The preceding trend of a 3-6-9 scoring log and minus-22 rating in 22 regular-season contests stands a better chance of slowing down and stepping back in the direction of normalcy.

There was an obvious prerequisite to all of that, and appropriately enough, Kessel got it while skating on a clean sheet at the Garden Saturday night.

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