BOSTON (CBS) — It had to happen at some point, and it just so happened to come at a rather fortunate time for Phil Kessel.
“It” was an even-strength goal for Kessel against his former team, something that had proven to be an impossible feat through 23 games against the Boston Bruins. That was until Saturday night at the TD Garden, when Kessel broke free behind Dennis Seidenberg all alone.
It was one-on-one, Kessel versus Tuukka Rask, though to say the goaltender was Kessel’s only opposition wouldn’t tell the whole tale for the player who gets booed and heckled mercilessly every time the puck touches his stick in Boston (and even times when he’s minding his own business on the bench). The pressure had clearly gotten the best of him many times before, but this time, in the biggest moment yet, he delivered.
“I was happy, obviously,” Kessel said to a massive scrum of reporters in the cramped visiting locker room after the win. “It’s been a long time versus these guys to score, but like I said, I got lucky. It just snuck by, I was fortunate.”
Fortunate, maybe, but timely without question. The goal gave the Maple Leafs a 3-1 lead in Game 2, just 53 seconds after the teams emerged from their locker rooms after the second intermission. The Bruins no doubt had plans to close the one-goal gap as soon as possible, but Kessel’s goal made the mountain twice as difficult to climb.
“It felt great, first of all, because it made it 3-1, and second of all because he’s battling hard and [the Bruins] are putting a lot of attention towards Phil,” said Joffrey Lupul, who scored twice in the win. “It’s good to see him get a chance and bury it like that.”
To be fair, Kessel’s struggles over the past three years against the Bruins may have been slightly exaggerated. He did put up 3-6-9 totals in the previous 23 games, which isn’t exactly being invisible, especially when you consider how tightly Zdeno Chara has played him in most of those games. But for a player with as much attention on him — and seemingly a strong desire to shy away from it — the significance of Saturday night’s goal can’t be overstated.
The Bruins did end up scoring that second goal, the one they had hoped would be the equalizer but instead only made it a one-goal game again. But thanks to Kessel’s insurance goal, the Leafs had no panic, and they stretched the lead back to two goals when James van Riemsdyk scored with just over three minutes left in the third to put the game out of reach for Boston. Kessel’s goal would prove to be the game-winner.
True, the breakaway goal is one a player of Kessel’s caliber should score, and it doesn’t erase the previous efforts against in which Kessel has come up short. But if the Leafs are to have a chance in this series, they’re going to need their leading scorer to play a big part in the offense. Whether this goal was the aberration or whether it will springboard him into a run of success will be seen in the coming games.
Kessel vs. Boston. The battle will continue. Now, at least, Kessel has delivered a retaliatory strike and has a major victory to his name.
Perhaps the biggest story line in Toronto prior to the series beginning was Kessel’s decision to avoid speaking to the media. He eventually did speak, though he didn’t actually say much and he made it clear he wanted to let his play do the talking. Just as importantly, if only for a night, he silenced the “Thank you, Kessel” chants that have rained down on him so many times before.