TORONTO – If there were one word to describe Phil Kessel, it might well be "shooter."
Kessel has one of the hardest and most accurate shots in the NHL. But he's more than just a gunner -- he also takes delight in setting up his linemates, and his ability to hit the open man is an underrated part of his game.
Kessel's passing ability was on display Thursday night when he registered two assists as the Toronto Maple Leafs moved a step closer to their first playoff berth since 2004 by beating the Carolina Hurricanes 6-3. The game was actually a lot closer than the final score suggests, as the Maple Leafs scored twice into the empty net after Joffrey Lupul's goal with 3:10 left in regulation snapped a 3-3 tie.
Kessel's two assists give him 24 on the season to go with 10 goals, and his 34 points are moving him toward the League's top 10 scorers. The 25-year-old finished sixth in in the NHL in scoring last season.
Not a man of many words, Kessel admitted after Thursday's game he takes delight in helping others score.
"I'm going to make whatever play is open," Kessel said. "If it's a shot, then it's a shot; if it's a pass; it's a pass. We're looking to score goals by making plays to create offense. I like to make a good play with a pretty pass."
If Kessel prefers not to talk glowingly about his passing ability, others will do it for him.
"He's an elite-level player who can find people [in the open]," Toronto coach Randy Carlyle said. "He is a special player with a special skillset. Usually those guys have more than one dimension. They see things on the ice before other people see them."
Added captain Dion Phaneuf, "He's a great passer. That's one thing that gets overlooked all the time because he has such a great shot and he's a natural goal-scorer. There are guys that have that God-given talent and they can see the ice. He's a top guy for a reason; he's not just a shooter."
The Maple Leafs went back to the lines they used at the start of Tuesday's game against the Florida Panthers and the move paid early dividends when the trio of Tyler Bozak, Kessel and James van Riemsdyk struck just 3:58 into the opening period. Van Riemsdyk corralled the puck at the left side of the Carolina net and made a nifty behind-the-back pass to Kessel, who immediately relayed it to Bozak at the far side of the goal. Bozak scored easily on a bewildered Justin Peters for his 10th goal of the season.
Kessel had a glorious opportunity to put the Maple Leafs up by two five minutes later when he blew past flat-footed defender Jay Harrison and broke in alone, only to fail on his attempt to beat Peters on the forehand with a shot aimed at the five-hole.
Toronto defenseman Cody Franson did give the Maple Leafs a 2-0 lead at 9:03 of the second period with his third goal of the season, and again it was Kessel setting up the play. After taking a pass at the left point from Phaneuf, Kessel directed a perfect cross-ice pass to Franson, who was breaking toward the net from the right point. Franson easily drilled a low snap shot past Peters.
Carolina, which had beaten Toronto in its previous two meetings this season, roared back with three straight goals and appeared to be primed to hand the Maple Leafs a third defeat. Eric Staal scored a nifty shorthanded goal on a breakaway at 11:29, beating Toronto's James Reimer through the five-hole, and Alexander Semin tied it at 15:52 during a power play with a seeing-eye shot to the top corner that Reimer had no chance on.
Jordan Staal, Eric's younger brother, gave the Hurricanes their first lead the lead when he drove hard to the net off the right-wing boards and snapped a shot over Reimer's right shoulder at 6:55 of the third period.
But the Maple Leafs, riding a three-game winning streak on home ice, didn't give up. Phaneuf tied it at 14:35 with his seventh of the season and second in as many games, beating Peters with a blast from the point. then Joffrey Lupul brought the crowd to its feet with an end-to-end dash that concluded with the speedy left wing cutting to the net and slipping a shot into the far side of the net past Peters. It was Lupul's seventh goal in eight games this season -- all seven have come in the five games since he returned from a broken arm March 16.
While Toronto appears primed to make its first post-season appearance in nine years, Carolina has dropped eight in a row and is fading in the Eastern Conference standings. Jordan Staal, in his first year with the Hurricanes after winning a Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009, said losing a game after scoring three straight goals to take the lead is frustrating.
"It's not a fun way to lose," Staal said. "We battled hard to get up in that game. We have to work harder to get bounces, and I think tonight was honestly one of our best nights of working hard and trying to find a way to win the game. Obviously we didn't come up with the result we were looking for and we have to be better if we want to make a push for the playoffs."