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Maple Leafs have plan to slow down Penguins' Kessel

by Mike Brophy

TORONTO -- Goalie James Reimer said Phil Kessel has the best shot in the NHL. Joffrey Lupul said he has a plan to try to stop Kessel.


The Toronto Maple Leafs will face their former teammate for the first time when they play the Pittsburgh Penguins at Consol Energy Center on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; CBC, ROOT).

"It'll be interesting," Reimer said. "He's dangerous … so dangerous. He's probably got the best shot in the League. Honestly, I don't think there's anybody better. Just the speed of his release and his accuracy and how heavy his shot is, he's the best. It'll be fun to face him. I faced him lots in practices, but even when you think you knew where he was shooting, he could usually still score."

The Maple Leafs' leading scorer the past six seasons, Kessel was traded to the Penguins on July 1 with defenseman Tim Erixon and forward Tyler Biggs for a package that included the Penguins' 2014 first-round draft pick, forward Kasperi Kapanen.

Kessel, who has one goal and two points in Pittsburgh's first four games, is coming off a difficult season when he scored 25 goals, down from 37 the season before. Many believe he has his best opportunity to score 40 for the first time in his NHL career playing on a Penguins team that has centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Reimer said Kessel's shot, speed and the ability to shoot accurately while skating at top speed make him unique among NHL shooters. In six seasons with the Maple Leafs, Kessel scored 181 goals. Only Alex Ovechkin (256), Steven Stamkos (253), Corey Perry (205) and Rick Nash (184) had more.

"He shoots it hard, it's accurate and it's quick," Reimer said. "And he's skating fast, which makes everything quicker. Some guys will have a heavy shot, but it's not a quick release. Some guys have a quick release, but it's not heavy. Some guys may have those two, but it's not as accurate. He's special."

If Kessel is the best shooter in the NHL, he is also a player who does not enjoy as much success playing in traffic. Lupul knows this and plans to make Kessel work hard to try to score Saturday.

"He is one of their best players and we have to check and play him really hard or he's the type of guy who can win a game on his own if you let him have a lot of space," Lupul said. "You have to make it a hard game for him. You have to make him stop and start. If you check him tight and play him physical he can get frustrated. Any chance you get to finish a check or hit him, you have to do it. You can't let him play the game at a high pace."

With Kessel gone, the Maple Leafs have turned to center Nazem Kadri to try to fill some of the offensive void. However, Kadri said if he is on the ice against Kessel he'll primarily be thinking about his defensive responsibilities.

"I should probably stop him first," Kadri said. "He is a dangerous player, so I always have to keep him in front of me. At the same time I'm an offensive player too, so I'll be looking for my opportunities."

If goaltenders have nightmares about facing Kessel, so do defensemen. Toronto's Matt Hunwick and Morgan Rielly are aware of how Kessel can take a mile when given an inch.

Hunwick was Kessel's teammate with the Boston Bruins and understands the challenges of playing him.

"He's an electric player; one of those game-breakers who, at any moment he gets the puck on his stick with speed, he can beat you," Hunwick said. "There's not a lot of room for error when you play those kind of players and you have to know always where they are. You try to have good gap or at least good speed to try to combat his offensive game."

Hunwick said it is more than Kessel's shot and speed that make him so dangerous.

"He can shoot it in stride with that quick snap shot and it always seems like he finds a spot for it," Hunwick said. "To be able to generate speed and shoot the puck while he's moving that fast makes it hard on the defense and especially the goalies. He's an elite speed guy and shooter. There's only a handful of those guys in the League. Obviously with the centers they have in Pittsburgh they'll find him quite often."

Rielly, 21, played his first two seasons in the NHL as Kessel's teammate and respects his speed and skill. Rielly said Kessel is a different animal who'll be amped up to play against his former team.

"He really understands the game and if you give him too much room he'll shoot the puck," Rielly said. "You have to play him tight. He's a hard player to play against, for sure."

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