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Kessel set to debut for Maple Leafs vs. Lightning

by Dan Rosen /
Phil Kessel will make his highly anticipated debut in blue and white Tuesday night when the Toronto Maple Leafs host the Tampa Bay Lightning at 7:30 p.m. ET

Kessel, who was acquired from Boston in September for two first-round picks and a second-rounder, announced Tuesday morning that he was cleared to play.

The 22-year-old American-born winger, who is supposed to become the new face of the Maple Leafs, has been out since having shoulder surgery in the spring. He scored 36 goals for the Bruins last season.

"I'm not too nervous," Kessel told reporters Tuesday according to the Toronto Star. "I'm excited to be back and playing hockey. It's six months since the surgery this week, it's a long time. I'm just happy to be back."

The Leafs have won only once in 12 games (1-7-4) this season and Kessel is coming into the lineup with a mountain of expectations on him considering how much GM Brian Burke gave up to get him.

"There's always pressure when you play hockey," Kessel told reporters following Monday's practice. "You don't feel it (because of the draft picks he was traded for), you just feel it because you want to help the team win, get in the playoffs or at least compete for a playoff spot. I think we've been playing better the last four or five games here, so I think things are starting to turn around."

Kessel, who played with Marc Savard last season, will be paired with Jason Blake and Matt Stajan.

"I hope Staje (Stajan) has the tools to get the puck to him," Leafs coach Ron Wilson said according to the Toronto Star, "and I told Phil to be open on the bench and tell his linemates when he wants the puck."

Wilson, though, remains tempered in his enthusiasm for Kessel's return to the lineup and is trying to keep his expectations to a minimum. He knows how difficult it can be for a player to join the lineup in November after missing all of camp and the first month.

"Remember he's playing on a new team with completely different teammates and a different style of play probably than he was used to with the Bruins," Wilson told reporters Monday. "I think I'm more concerned with that than his overcoming an injury. If he had this surgery and was still in Boston and he's going to step on the ice with guys he's more familiar with. It's a little easier than he would be doing here."

Still, Wilson was told two months ago that Nov. 3 would be the target date for Kessel's return and he won't hold him back. He is not only playing on what is perceived to be the Leafs top line, but he's also going to filter into the power play almost right off the hop.

"When I see him bent over and huffing and puffing we'll give him a rest," the coach said. "If he feels capable of playing a lot of minutes he will. I'll just play it by ear."

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