Leafs will have Kessel back against Lightning
Tuesday, 11.03.2009 / 7:30 PM
LIGHTNING (4-4-4) at MAPLE LEAFS (1-7-4)
Tampa Bay 4-3-3; Toronto 1-6-3
First of four meetings this season. Tampa Bay went 3-0-1 against Toronto last season. Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier
led all scorers with four goals. The only Leafs victory was the result of a John Mitchell shootout goal.
This is the night Phil Kessel
makes his debut for the Maple Leafs after being acquired over the summer from the Bruins for three high draft picks. Kessel skated on a line in practice Monday and declared himself ready after Tuesday's morning skate.
Kessel is returning from offseason rotator cuff surgery.
The 22-year-old American-born winger, who is supposed to become the new face of the Maple Leafs, has been out since having shoulder surgery in the spring. He scored 36 goals for the Bruins last season.
"I'm not too nervous," Kessel told reporters Tuesday according to the Toronto Star. "I'm excited to be back and playing hockey. It's six months since the surgery this week, it's a long time. I'm just happy to be back."
The Leafs have won only once in 12 games (1-7-4) this season and Kessel is coming into the lineup with a mountain of expectations on him considering how much GM Brian Burke gave up to get him.
"There's always pressure when you play hockey," Kessel told reporters following Monday's practice. "You don't feel it (because of the draft picks he was traded for), you just feel it because you want to help the team win, get in the playoffs or at least compete for a playoff spot. I think we've been playing better the last four or five games here, so I think things are starting to turn around."
Kessel, who played with Marc Savard last season, will be paired with Jason Blake and Matt Stajan.
It's been a mixed bag for Tampa, as the record would suggest. On the plus side, the Lightning have 12 points in as many games -- projected over a full season, that would be a 16-point improvement from their 2008-09 total. They're also one of just three teams to gain at least a point in every home game (4-0-3). However, they're 0-4-1 on the road after Monday's 6-2 loss in Philadelphia, a particularly poor showing that left coach Rick Tocchet in dismay.
"I honestly can't think of who played good," Tocchet said. "Usually you have a couple of individuals, but they were very light on their sticks and the Flyers were very strong. … We looked really weak out there tonight. It was a little alarming."
Back from a five-game road trip, Toronto actually went 1-1-3 with points in four consecutive games, although the final three were either overtime or shootout losses. Overall, the Leafs have lost 11 of 12 this season, and they had given up the first goal in every game until opening the scoring in Saturday's 5-4 shootout loss in Montreal. Now they'll shoot for their first win at the Air Canada Centre (0-4-1).
"I could throw out all the cliches, but we still have to find a way to win,'' coach Ron Wilson said. "Which cliche do you want? We never say die, blah, blah blah? We still need to win.''
Each team has a guy who's scorching hot -- Tampa Bay center Steven Stamkos
has scored in six consecutive games and has 11 goals for the season, second in the League. Toronto defenseman Tomas Kaberle has compiled two goals and 11 assists in his last five games. Kaberle, who at one point was speculated to be heading to Boston in a Kessel deal, leads the Leafs with 17 points.
Lightning defenseman Matt Smaby has not yet played this season due to an upper-body injury, though he has begun skating, and fellow blueliner Paul Ranger
has left the team for personal reasons.
Leafs goalie Vesa Toskala returned from a knee injury to face the Canadiens, so once Kessel enters the lineup they'll be as healthy as they're going to be -- defenseman Mike Van Ryn is out for the season following knee surgery.
Kessel has 66 goals and 126 points in 222 regular-season games. His production took a huge leap from his sophomore season to his third, as he went from 19 goals and 37 points to 36 goals and 60 points.
If there was pressure on Kessel when he was first traded to help turn the Leafs around, it's only increased with the team's poor start. On the flip side, it's hard for Toronto to go anywhere but up, and if he takes the ice against the Lightning the emotion alone from getting him back should have the bench psyched and the crowd buzzing.
-- Brian Hunter, NHL.com