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Penguins' Kessel expects jeers, fun in Toronto return

by Tim Wharnsby

TORONTO -- The timing has been impeccable for Phil Kessel's first game at Air Canada Centre since he was traded by the Toronto Maple Leafs four months ago.

His new team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, have won six of their past seven games after an 0-3-0 start. Kessel is riding a three-game point streak, including back-to-back game-winning goals against the Nashville Predators on Oct. 24 and Washington Capitals on Wednesday.

But Kessel, who spent six seasons leading the Maple Leafs offense, expects to be jeered when the Penguins play here on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; CBC, NHLN, ROOT).

"I think there'll be some boos, obviously," Kessel said after the morning skate. "That's always how it is, right? I loved my time here. I don't regret anything, and it should be fun tonight."

Kessel scored 181 goals and 395 points in 446 games for the Maple Leafs but there will be no tribute video on the scoreboard to honor him in his return game.

The Maple Leafs want the focus on their current players, not one who raised the ire of the fan base last season, when he struggled with six goals in 34 games after the All-Star break.

"It's a strange feeling, but I'm happy to be back," Kessel said. "This is my home, right? I lived here for a long time and I love the city. I had great memories here."

Kessel signed an eight-year contract extension prior to the 2013-14 season. But after two seasons, he was traded to the Penguins on July 1 with forward Tyler Biggs and defenseman Tim Erixon for forward Nick Spaling, defenseman Scott Harrington, forward prospect Kasperi Kapanen, and first-round and third-round picks in the 2016 NHL Draft.

"You're going to have to ask them," said Kessel on why he didn't finish that contract in Toronto. "Obviously, I signed here to be here. I made a commitment. That's how it goes. It's hockey, right? It's a business and you move on."

Kessel has four goals and six points in 10 games with the Penguins.

After a slow start playing alongside Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz, Kessel was moved to a line with Evgeni Malkin and David Perron. Kessel has picked up his play, and so have the rest of the Penguins.

"They're both great players," Kessel said of Crosby and Malkin. "You watch them, they play two little different styles, but they're two of the best players in the world, so they're pretty easy to play with."

Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford and coach Mike Johnston each said Kessel has made a seamless transition to his new team, his third in 10 NHL seasons after debuting with the Boston Bruins.

Kessel was criticized for his lack of conditioning in Toronto, but that didn't concern Rutherford. He said after the trade was made, fitness guru and former NHL player Gary Roberts called to inform him Kessel had signed on to work out under Roberts in the summer.

Rutherford then made his way for a face-to-face meeting at St. Andrew's College in Aurora, Ontario, just north of Toronto, where Roberts' stable of players were working out in July.

"I really liked him from the start," Rutherford said. "It was an easy conversation. What I learned from that meeting was how much he loved the game and how much he knew about what other players were doing. He is engaged in the game."

Rutherford reasoned Crosby and Kessel didn't work out right away because they were passing to each other too much. Johnston said Kessel likely will see time as the season progresses on lines with Malkin and Crosby.

"Phil is very coachable," Johnston said. "He's been good to talk to after games, to get his take on what happened."

In the meantime, Kessel has his return game in Toronto on his mind, something that has been made easier because he played against his old teammates in Pittsburgh on Oct. 17, a 2-1 win for the Penguins.

"It is a little odd," he said of being in the visitors dressing room at the Air Canada Centre. "I played here for six years, so it's a strange feeling, but you know what, it happens, and I'm just excited to be back.

"I played against the Leafs [with the Bruins] in my first few years in the League, so I've been in this dressing room before. It's different because I love this city and I spent a lot of time here. But it's just another game and I'm going to go have fun and try to get a win."

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