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Kessel scores again in Leafs' win

by Jeremy Sandler
TORONTO -- By circumstantial evidence alone, Toronto Maple Leafs winger Phil Kessel's favorite U.S. President could easily be Teddy Roosevelt.

Certainly, the 26th president's 1901 motto "Speak softly and carry a big stick" applies to the Wisconsin native.

Kessel declined to speak to the media after his team's 3-2 shootout win over Montreal on Saturday night. But when the 22-year-old does speak, the sentences tend to be slight on words and decibels.

Still, there is no denying what Kessel's hot stick is saying for the Maple Leafs with six goals in Toronto's last six games.

Although he missed his shootout attempt against the Canadiens, Kessel scored his team-leading 28th goal against Montreal on Saturday.

That total may or may not assuage Leafs fans upset at the two first-round picks and a second-rounder Toronto general manager Brian Burke gave up to land Kessel from Boston, but it speaks volumes to his teammates.

"Basically he scores almost every game, so it's nice to play with him, that's for sure," said linemate Tyler Bozak. "He's that good of a player, he finds the openings so well and then you see with his shot tonight, he can score form the outside as well."

That shot Bozak spoke of was a wrist shot from the high slot on a cross-ice pass from Nikolai Kulemin that Kessel barely bothered to stop before shooting.

If he looked up at all to see daylight behind Montreal goalie Jaroslav Halak sliding from his right to his left, it was a glance quick enough to be missed by most observers.

"Some people are blessed with that knack of knowing where the shot's going or hitting certain spots in the net, Phil's got an unbelievable release," said Leafs coach Ron Wilson after the game. "Halak is one of the better goalies in the League now, I think, and that shot Phil scored on was phenomenal. That's a rink-wide pass on your stick and released … almost as you're catching it, you just snap it."

The former Anaheim and San Jose coach said Kessel's release is as quick as any player he has seen, even among the great scorers he’s sent over the boards.

"Start with Paul Kariya and then Teemu Selanne, national teams Brett Hull, Jonathan Cheechoo when he was scoring and now Phil," said Wilson. "Phil’s got as good a release as any of these guys I've ever seen."

According to Wilson, it's no coincidence Toronto's six wins in seven games – including the Maple Leafs only two three-game winning streaks this season – have come with Kessel on his roll.

"Most nights when we're winning, Phil's scored a goal, it's huge," said Wilson. "Our games are one-goal games now and if Phil doesn't score then we're either not getting to a shootout/overtime or anything like this. It's huge that he's scoring."

Jeremy Sandler covers sports for the National Post newspaper in Toronto.

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