|Phil Kessel has gone from the dog house to being a pivotal player in the Bruins' comeback.
Phil Kessel highlight video
After being benched for three straight, Kessel responded with a game-tying goal in Game 5 to help his team bring the series back to Boston for Game 6. He then scored twice Saturday night as the Bruins forced what only a few days ago seemed like an impossibility -- a winner-take-all Game 7.
"The last two games, he's been unbelievable," said coach Claude Julien. "If he wants to keep proving me wrong, I can take it."
Prior to Game 5, Kessel elected not to speak to the gathered media after the morning skate. Julien had benched Kessel in the previous three games, and the second-year forward decided to take the high road when addressing the situation.
“I really don't want to talk about it,” he said as he headed for the showers.
Kessel has never been known to talk much and hardly ever reveals his emotions, but clearly he was not happy about watching the playoffs from the press box after a season in which he played in all 82 games and amassed 19 goals and 18 assists for 37 points. He also had become a clutch performer with five shootout winners.
But rather than pout and sulk about being a healthy scratch, Kessel decided to do his talking on the ice. After getting the nod to play in Game 5, Kessel came out and played a terrific and well-balanced game, notching the game-tying goal on the power-play 7:45 into the second period. The Bruins would go on to score four third-period goals and force a Game 6 with a 5-1 win in the Bell Centre.
“I think it's pretty obvious that we saw Phil Kessel determined to get back in the lineup and make a difference,” Julien said after Game 5. “I think everybody who's seen him play this year would say that was one of his best games.”
But no one could've imagined what Kessel had in store for Game 6. With his team trailing 1-0 early in the second period, “Phil the Thrill” earned his nickname with an amazing game-tying goal 1:54 into the second period. Kessel utilized his strong speed and headed down the right wing. As he rushed into the offensive zone, Marc Savard made a behind-the-back pass, and Kessel finished the play by deking Montreal defenseman Francois Bouillon and beating Canadiens goaltender Carey Price for his second career playoff goal.
But Kessel wasn't done as he scored another goal 15:45 into the third period. The Bruins would relinquish the lead only 11 seconds later, but as they have throughout this season, they responded and regained the lead on a Marco Sturm goal with 2:37 left in the game.
“What a play, eh?” Aaron Ward asked in response to Kessel's first goal of the game.
Turns out that play made Ward realize something special was going on and he needed to let the youngster know.
“I talked to him between the second and third period and let him know he was in a zone and we could see it. Players in the locker room know that and they see it when another player is playing like that. We knew Phil was on fire all around.”
Ward recalled being benched in the 1998 Stanley Cup Final and praised Kessel for the way he handled his benching.
“You know you have to give kudos to a young guy like that and realize it takes a lot to respond the right way,” he said. “You have to accept sometimes that for whatever reason, you're not the guy right now for team chemistry or maybe you're not doing the little things you need to do to be in the lineup. But he's a 20-year-old kid and it would've been easy for him to sulk or just pack it in, and he didn't. He should be proud of himself.”
Goaltender Tim Thomas, who has been instrumental in the Bruins' comeback in the series, concurred with Ward and referred to Kessel as a “star” in the making.
“He could have come back and gone through the motions, he could have come back and said, 'Oh, I'm going to try hard,' ” Thomas said. “But now he's turned into a star of these playoffs, just in these two games. It's great to see out of him. I'm happy for him and it bodes well for his future.”