In this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs, though, the 25-year-old left wing has arrived once and for all as a big-time game breaker. Kessel scored what looked to be an insurance marker early in the third period of Sunday night's home game against the Boston Bruins.
But, when Milan Lucic notched his first goal of the Stanley Cup Playoffs with 24.5 seconds remaining, Kessel's goal became the game-winner in a 2-1 victory. It was his second game-winning goal of the series.
James Reimer stopped 29 of 30 shots in the victory for Toronto – its first at home since the 2004 postseason – and a seventh game in this series is now necessary. It will be played Monday night in Boston, where the Maple Leafs have won two of three games in the series.
With three goals and four points in six games, Kessel has clearly stepped up to the plate for the Maple Leafs.
"I'm just playing the game and hopefully things happen," Kessel said. "Things are going alright right now."
Kessel, of course, was traded to Toronto by the Bruins on Sept. 18, 2009 in one of the most discussed and analyzed trades in Maple Leafs history. To get him, former general manager Brian Burke surrendered two first-round draft choices (who became center Tyler Seguin and defenseman Dougie Hamilton), both of whom are playing for Boston, and a second-round pick. When the Bruins won the Stanley Cup two years ago, it looked like they were the clear winners of the deal. Most people would probably still give the Bruins the edge in the deal, but not by a landslide like before.
When the Maple Leafs play in Boston, Bruins fans usually serenade their former player with chants of, "Thank You Kessel!" Sunday, the capacity crowd at Air Canada Centre turned the tables and in the third period started chanting, "Thank you, Tyler!"
Asked about it, Kessel said, "You know what? I'm not even going to talk about it. I think that's over with now. Obviously, he's a great player and there's two teams battling out there."
Indeed, there were.
The Maple Leafs and Bruins were each without a key player for the game. Toronto center Tyler Bozak was a last-minute scratch because of an undisclosed injury and Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference was left at home, also with an undisclosed injury.
Both teams battled through two scoreless periods before the Maple Leafs finally got thing going offensively in the third. Team captain Dion Phaneuf, who was widely criticized for an ill-timed pinch in Game 4 in Toronto that led to the Bruins winning in overtime, spied center Nazem Kadri open at the Boston blue line and made a perfect pass before breaking to the Bruins' goal area. Kadri sliced his way to the top of the slot area and fired a wrist shot that hit the shaft of Phaneuf's stick and beat Boston goalie Tuukka Rask at 1:48.
A little over six minutes later, Kessel popped a rebound past Rask to make it 2-0. Teams look to their best players in a pinch, and the Maple Leafs are certainly no exception. Toronto coach Randy Carlyle said he has seen Kessel take his game to the next level.
"He's a goal-scorer and he knows how to find and create space," Carlyle said. "When he comes late on the ice, you can see the intimidation he has with his speed and skills. We have asked him to play more stop-and-go hockey instead of a specifically a rush game."
The Bruins, who outshot the Maple Leafs 30-26, pressed hard as time wound down, but Reimer was sensational. It looked like he might record his first career postseason shutout until Lucic, who has come alive in the playoffs after struggling during the regular season, scored his first after tallying seven assists through the first five games.
Reimer, the game's first star, said he was not concerned about letting in a goal that might crush the spirit of his team.
"You can't think like that," Reimer said. "You just keep playing your game. Sometimes, a puck will go off a shin pad and in and sometimes they go off a shin pad and out. You have to stay focused on what will make you successful and hope that the bounces go your way. We were lucky enough tonight that they did."
There is a reason why teams try to get home-ice advantage, and that is to have a deciding game in their building. That is how things have worked out for the Bruins. Claude Julien is the first to admit his team has not played well through the first six games of the series for a number of reasons.
"I think tonight was definitely (bad) puck management," the Bruins' coach said. "We talked about it before the game and we talked about it after the first period. That sometimes means being strong on the puck, making the right plays, shooting versus over-passing. I didn't think it was very good and as I said to our players, we've been a Jekyll-and-Hyde team all year, and that's what you're seeing right now. I think it's important for us to bring the good Bruins team to the table for Game 7."