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Kessel puts his 'cheating' days behind him

by John McGourty
Phil Kessel loves hockey so much, he never thought anyone would call him a "cheater."

But Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien stressed over and over again last season that Kessel was "cheating" on his defensive-zone responsibilities. He even benched him during the Bruins' first-round Stanley Cup Playoff series won by the Montreal Canadiens.

That made an impression on the Bruins' first-line, third-year right winger. Not only did Kessel's "cheating" result in more goals-against, but Julien believed it also deprived him of scoring chances.

Kessel took his coach's instruction to heart and now works harder in his own end. As a result, he ranks third in the NHL with 19 goals and 15th with 31 points. Kessel was named the NHL's "First Star" for the week ending Dec. 14, after posting eight points (3 goals, 5 assists) in four games, extending his League-leading point streak to 15 games. The Bruins won three of those four contests, improving their Eastern Conference-leading record to 21-5-4.

Kessel's point streak is the longest in the NHL this season and longest by a Bruins player since Adam Oates recorded points in 20-consecutive games from Jan. 7 to Feb. 20, 1997. Kessel, 21, is second in Bruins scoring with 31 points, behind only his center, Marc Savard, who has 8 goals and 26 assists.

Kessel already has matched his career high of 19 goals, set last season.

"Claude told me that if I play good two-way hockey, if I'm good in the defensive end, I'll get good chances in the offensive end," Kessel said, adding the playoff benching was difficult to accept. "It was a tough situation. You never want to not play. I want to be out there, but it's his decision.

"I don't think it has changed my game, but he has distilled more good defensive awareness for myself and my line. Our whole team is playing good two-way hockey, and that's creating chances for us. The big change is I'm not cheating on the defensive side. Claude explained that it's important not to give up goals. I want to score, but we can't be giving up goals."

Julien has Kessel playing on a line with Savard -- the NHL Player of the Week ending Nov. 23 -- and rugged second-year left winger Milan Lucic, who has 9 goals and 11 assists.

"I enjoy playing with both those guys, they're both great hockey players," Kessel said. "Savard is a very skilled guy. He has great passing skills. He's one of the top couple of passers in the League. He finds guys when they are open."

Kessel said he hasn't changed his game in the offensive zone, although the numbers tell a little bit different story. Kessel has taken 97 shots and is on pace for 265. His career high is 213 shots, set a year ago.

"I don't think I've tried to shoot more," Kessel said. "Marc is finding me in good areas and I'm getting a lot better opportunity to shoot the puck, really good scoring opportunities. I don't think I'm doing anything that different. It has a lot to do with my linemates finding me in good situations. They give me good passes. When I'm open, they find me and we have great chemistry. I must be getting more shots."

Kessel plays on the second power-play unit with center David Krejci and Lucic. They combined for a beautiful power-play goal Saturday in a 4-2 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers, the Bruins' 11th-straight home victory and their 16th win in their last 19 games. The Bruins took over the Eastern Conference lead with 46 points (21-5-4).

"That's a power-play unit with (defensemen) Dennis Wideman and Matt Hunwick," Kessel said. "Krejci is a great hockey player, very smart and very skilled. He's a great passer and he finds guys in the open. Blake Wheeler and Michael Ryder love playing on a regular line with him. He makes smart plays. Ryder is playing very well lately and starting to score some goals and playing some very good hockey for our team."

That's key for the Bruins, who signed Ryder as a free agent this summer after he scored only 14 goals for Montreal last season following back-to-back 30-goal campaigns. Ryder had earlier success playing for Julien in Montreal and the Bruins hoped he'd rebound. He started slowly but has 5 goals and 1 assist in his last five games.

"Blake is a great hockey player and he's doing great this year, so far," Kessel said of his old University of Minnesota teammate, another important free-agent signing this past summer. "He's scoring goals and putting up points. He's a great two-way hockey player, plus-18 on the year. He should be getting more recognition in the rookie race this year because he's a great hockey player."

When the Bruins made Kessel the fifth overall pick of the 2006 Entry Draft, they were coming off a 74-point season. They were the third-worst team in the Eastern Conference and very thin in top prospects.

The Bruins have achieved their conference-leading status this season despite serious injuries to forward Marco Sturm and defensemen Aaron Ward and Andrew Ference. They've had other injuries as well, but players keep coming up from AHL Providence and are getting the job done.

"There's a lot of depth in Providence," Kessel agreed. "Those guys have stepped up really well. Aaron (Ward) got hurt and 'Hunny' (Matt Hunwick) is playing well. (Forward) Martin Karsums played a great game for us the other night. He was nervous, but he did a great job. We have confidence in those guys and know they are good hockey players."

Kessel won the 2006-07 Bill Masterton Trophy after overcoming a bout with cancer in his rookie season. He has played in 155 consecutive games since having surgery.

"I've never, ever wanted to miss a game," Kessel said. "I love it so much, even the bumps and bruises. I'm fortunate to not have any bad injuries so far. I just go out and play and hope nothing happens.

"You always love the game, but you don't realize how much you miss it until it is gone. You don't know what to do. I was so bored. When I look back, I couldn't be someone who doesn't play hockey. I love it so much and I missed it so much. I had to get back right away."

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