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Olympian Kessel struggling to regain scoring touch

by Dan Rosen
NEWARK, N.J. -- Phil Kessel insists he's not thinking about the Olympics and is solely focused on trying to help the Toronto Maple Leafs break out of their prolonged slump.

Kessel, though, is fighting his own personal prolonged slump, and that's just not good for the Leafs or for Team USA.

The third-year winger was held without a goal Friday in New Jersey for the fifth straight game. He has only one goal in his last 14 games and just two in the last 21. The Leafs are 5-12-4 over that span and are averaging just over two goals per game.

They scored four against the Devils, but fell in overtime.

"It's been a tough year," Kessel said. "Obviously I was hurt at the start and I came back and we were winning some games for a while, but we just can't find a groove right now. We can't get a win."

If Kessel's struggles continue, you have to wonder how Team USA coach Ron Wilson, also the Maple Leafs' bench boss, will utilize him in the Olympics. This is a player, after all, who scored 36 goals with Boston last season and had 13 in his first 22 games as a Maple Leaf.

Wilson didn't entertain any questions about Kessel on Friday. He's dealing more with the struggles of his entire team right now.

However, a few weeks ago, when Kessel's struggles were becoming a hot button issue in Toronto, Wilson defended the kid's eagerness to score and added that he needs to be able to battle through the slump.

"He wants to score more than anybody, that's a special art he has and when you're not doing it you tend to internalize and beat yourself up," Wilson said. "He needs to stick with it."

Maybe the prospect of the Olympic tournament looming in just over two weeks will be enough to get Kessel going again.

He said Friday morning that he has started to watch some of his old goals in an effort to see what he was doing and if there is anything he is doing differently now.

It's been a futile effort so far.

"I've watched some of my old goals, but it's not going in," Kessel said. "I just have to keep going and I have to be better. What else can you say?"

Kessel was hoping to score Friday in New Jersey. He said he still didn't have one against Devils goalie Martin Brodeur, but he wound up as a non-factor in the 5-4 overtime loss, recording just three non-descript shots in 20 minutes of ice time.

Even though he's struggling and an entire hockey city has caught on, not to mention the one in Massachusetts where he used to play, Kessel insists he's thrilled to be in Toronto and he feels at home.

He won't let his slump influence his opinion of the city.

"I love it here in Toronto," he said. "We have a great group of guys here. I wouldn't want to play anywhere else. It's a great city and they love their hockey, but unfortunately right now we're not winning hockey games. I'm really happy being here."

Whether or not he's out of this slump come Feb. 16, when the United States opens the Olympic tournament against Switzerland, Kessel may be even happier in Vancouver.

He's expected to be a key offensive contributor for Team USA, which despite not being favored for a medal insists it is going there to win gold.

"Oh, it's going to be an unbelievable experience," he said. "I'm so excited to have the opportunity to play for USA Hockey and represent my country in the Olympics. It's a dream come true."

For now, though, his dream is to start scoring some goals for the Maple Leafs. When he was putting the puck in the net, the Leafs were on an 11-8-3 run, their best stretch of the season by far.

"You're excited about the other tournament but this is what you're paid to do," Kessel said. "This is your job, to play hockey here. I'm focused on this. We're not winning many games so we have to get back on track and win some hockey games."

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