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A Dominant Show By Kessel

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

Location, location, location.

Phil Kessel, Phil Kessel, Phil Kessel.

Two answers to the same question: what’s the most important thing?

Kessel scored two showstopping goals as the Leafs dug themselves out of a 2-0 hole to beat Calgary 3-2, Saturday.

The Leafs, in case you have been wondering, have yet to lose any of their first three games.
After a goalless first game, Kessel has scored five times in the last two contests and he is still a lousy interview.

There aren’t many guys whose on-ice image and off-ice personality bring a bigger disconnect. Put Kessel in a scrum of reporters and it takes real resolve to move your pen. Put him on the ice, especially in the early stages of this season and last,  and you can’t take your eyes of him.

“We got the W,” Kessel said. “We battled back. I thought we played decent, a little lapse in the first period and we just battled right back.”

See what I mean?

Now go to the tape. After goals from Curtis Glencross and Scott Hannan, Kessel cradled the puck near the side boards early in the second period.   As usual, he attracted checkers like a dog draws fleas. Kessel rarely passes. It’s a bit like asking Meagan Fox to cook. For what it’s worth, sometimes Meagan Fox will go a week without eating because she hates cooking so much. She said so in Allure Magazine and that friends is what makes her so perfect for the Phil Kessel passing analogy.

Anyway, Kessel found Joffrey Lupul in the slot and Lupul, a little less astonished than anyone else, ripped the puck past Calgary goalie Mikka Kiprusoff.

Kessel could be a wonderful passer but then he wouldn’t be the shooter he is.

Or maybe he would. On this night, the question wasn’t who could feed Kessel. The question instead is was who Kessel could feed to free himself of checkers? A few moments later, Kessel delivered a sublime backhand saucer pass to Lupul for what should have been the second Leafs’ goal.

Late in the second, Carl Gunnarsson found Kessel who had maybe a step on Calgary defenceman Chris Butler. Kessel fended off Butler with his arm, cut to the net and ripped a shot past Kiprusoff.

Early in the third, he veered wide, cut in on Kiprusoff and, well, you get the picture.

When Phil Kessel is that Phil Kessel, the hungry guy who will drift over to the boards to get a loose puck, the guy angling toward the net before a defenceman whose only job is to stop him can recover, he’s enough to make you get religion.

“He can do it all,” is the way his linemate Tyler Bozak put it and there is no arguing that.

“He wants the puck a lot and he should have it a lot. He knows if he gives it to other guys he is going to have more opportunities. That creates more chances.”

The Leafs are a terrifically interesting study these days Kessel is thriving even though the guy who was supposed to make him soar, Tim Connolly, is suffering from an upper body injury too agonizing to let him play. In his absence, Bozak, the player whose struggles prompted the Leafs to get Connolly, has looked very good, thanks very much.

For this, Bozak will eventually be sent down the ranks.

“He’s kind of keeping the seat warm for Tim,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. “He’ll be on the third line but it’s nice to have that kind of depth.”

True enough. Connolly can heal at his leisure and at this writing Kessel is tied for the NHL goals and points lead. That sort of production can help a team.

So too can good goaltending and exemplary work in the faceoff circle.

The Flames went zero for three in the man advantage.  When Mike Brown took a foolish goaltender interference penalty midway through the third, David Steckel whipped Olli Jokinen three straight times in the circle. Each time the Leafs struggled before eventually clearing the puck but each time the Flames weren’t able to generate the sustained pressure that would have resulted in multiple scoring chances.

Steckel went 12-5 in the circle. Bozak did even better, he went 14-5 and the Leafs won two thirds of their draws.

Things got tight in the final moments after Kessel, there’s that guy again, was nabbed for accidentally clearing the puck over the boards. With a few seconds left, the puck found Rene Bourque but his shot hit Leafs goalie James Reimer right in the glove instead of the foot of the net he was aiming for.

“I think I just closed my eyes and screamed,” Reimer said.

He wasn’t alone.

It was an entertaining night. A week of uninterrupted practice steadied the Leafs penalty kill.

Cody Franson, in for Jake Gardiner looked steady enough although the Leafs are more dangerous with the free-ranging Gardiner. The Leafs cleared the puck smoothly from their own end and if the win wasn’t overwhelmingly fitting, it was fair enough.

Briefly: Mike Komisarek blocked five shots and spent some time beside Dion Phaneuf who was again outstanding.  Clarke MacArthur appeared after a two-game suspension but barely held his own and showed some rough patches in handling the puck.  Reimer stopped 30 shots, Kiprusoff 22 and everyone went home happy. The Leafs play Colorado on Monday. Stay tuned.

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