BOSTON – The record book shows that Phil Kessel had scored six goals in the Stanley Cup Playoffs at TD Garden prior to Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Boston Bruins on Saturday night.
Unfortunately for the Toronto Maple Leafs, all six of those goals were scored in a Bruins sweater, and the last ones came during the 2009 second-round series against Carolina.
The optimists in Toronto would say it only took Kessel one postseason game in a Maple Leafs sweater to kick his goal-scoring into gear. Kessel scored on a breakaway 53 seconds into the third period to put the Maple Leafs ahead 3-1 en route to a series-tying 4-2 win against the Bruins. Kessel's first goal of the series was also the first even-strength goal of his career against the team that traded him to Toronto in 2009.
"Obviously it's nice to get one," said Kessel, whose scoring chances always outnumber his words. "But we've just got to keep going."
Kessel's paltry offensive numbers since he was traded by Boston inspired a "Thank You Kessel" chant almost from the first game he returned to the Garden. In 22 games prior to this series, Kessel had just three goals and nine points against the Bruins; he had no points against Boston during the regular season and didn't hit the scoresheet in Game 1.
Still, Kessel's Maple Leafs teammates still had faith in him. On Saturday night, that faith was rewarded.
"He's one of the best players in the League, so it doesn't surprise me at all to see him be successful and see him create out there," Maple Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk said. "He's really good at creating offense for our team and he's been a really complete player for us all year and he'll continue to do that."
In an effort to get Kessel away from a matchup with Boston captain Zdeno Chara, a 6-foot-9 All-Star defenseman, Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle made more of an effort to juggle his lines on the fly. A lot of Kessel's shifts came on a new line with Ryan Hamilton and Nazem Kadri, but he skated with almost every other forward on the roster at one point or another.
Kessel finished with four shots on net and a plus-1 rating.
"We obviously tried to do a few things to keep them separate." Carlyle said of Kessel and Chara. "But again, the tempo of the game was a lot different from our standpoint where we moved the puck more effectively. We didn't turn it over, so to me that was the biggest difference between tonight and Wednesday. We just didn't self-destruct; we worked hard and we competed, and got a few breaks that went our way."
Kessel's goal came with Chara on the bench. After Dennis Seidenberg's shot was blocked by Hamilton, Kessel blew the zone and Kadri threw the puck ahead to the speedy winger. Kessel then beat goaltender Tuukka Rask through the five-hole. Kessel said it was "fortunate to go in." But it was a pretty goal as well as a big goal, as you could tell by Kessel's two-arms-in-the-air salute and his giant grin.
"I was happy, obviously. It's been a long time vs. these guys to score. But like I said, I got lucky. Just through the five-hole there. I was fortunate," he said.
Said Carlyle: "I think you can see the smile on his face and I guess the energy that our bench got from it so it was obviously a big positive in that respect."
If Kessel's first goal of the series and first even-strength score ever against the Bruins has poked a hole in a dam, the Bruins might have to be prepared for a deluge as this series shifts to Toronto for Game 3 and 4.
"He's a very opportunistic player. You saw the goal," Seidenberg said. "That puck got blocked and he took off. Again, we have to be more careful when he's out there and watch when he takes off."