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Phil the thrill

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  April 17, 2009 10:41 AM

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One year later, the Bruins and Montreal Canadiens have completely exchanged identities. Maybe Phil Kessel similarly has been transformed. This spring, maybe Kessel intends to force his way onto the ice rather facilitating his way off.

The new and improved Bruins made their return to playoff hockey at the TD Banknorth Garden last night, and Kessel was the most dynamic, electrifying player on the ice. Playing with the initial burst of a windup toy, Kessel finished with two goals and an assist as the Bruins improved to 8-1-1 against Montreal in the teams’ last 10 meetings beginning with Game 5 of last year’s quarterfinal series.

For Kessel and the Bruins, it seems, last year's series might as well be another lifetime ago.

"It’s been a real pleasure playing with him all season," Bruins center Marc Savard said of Kessel, who will be a restricted free agent this summer. "He really brings that dynamic to our line with his speed and his shot. Hopefully, he sticks around and he plays for another six years here."

Six years? For Kessel, that might as well be another lifetime. He is still just 21. He still may be just scratching the surface. His Bruins career seemingly has consisted of one drama after the next -- testicular cancer, mononucleosis, trade talk -- and yet only 11 players in the NHL scored more goals this year. During his three seasons with the Bruins, Kessel has gone from 11 goals to 18 to 36, his plus-minus similarly going from minus-12 to minus-6 to plus-23 this season.

And yet, as much as anything, last spring stands out as a defining moment in Kessel’s topsy-turvy career. After Game 1 of the playoffs last spring, an affair in which Kessel managed two shots on goal and played lethargically on both ends of the ice, he was unceremoniously benched by coach Claude Julien, frozen out of the biggest games of the season. Kessel returned to the lineup to score a goal in Game 5 and two more in Game 6, and he really hasn’t stopped scoring since.

Beginning with Game 5 a year ago, Kessel has scored 41 goals in his last 74 games. His only real drought came from Jan. 6 through Feb. 21, a 14-game period that generally coincided with his return after a bout with mono. In the Bruins’ final 14 games of the regular season, Kessel scored 12 goals. Last night, he popped home two more.

In the modern NHL, how many players like Kessel really are there? How many others play for the Bruins? Maybe this is all too elementary, but can it be solely a coincidence that the Bruins of mid-March regained their early-season form when Kessel reclaimed his scoring touch?

"Phil on the spot," Julien said after the game, referring to Kessel’s first goal last night, a play on which Kessel followed his shot and knocked home the rebound to give the Bruins a 1-0 advantage. "He was in the right place and he scores goals that way."

Julien meant those words as compliment, of course, but even then, the irony was impossible to ignore. Kessel has been on the spot for much of his Bruins career. In 2006, he was the fifth pick in the annual draft. As recently as this year’s trading deadline, the possibility of trading him seemed a very real option. Depending on whom (or what) you believe, the Bruins were thisclose to trading Kessel to the St. Louis Blues for youngster David Perron and veteran Keith Tkachuk.

In the end, Kessel remained in Boston, and he has become the Bruins’ best goal scorer in what could be construed as an impossible dream season. Two years ago, the Bruins were one of the worst teams in hockey. Last year, they squeaked into the playoffs as the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. The Bruins appeared on the verge of being ousted from the playoffs in five games before putting together a pair of victories, the second in an unforgettable Game 6 performance that all but resuscitated and revived hockey in Sportstown USA.

With an empty-netter last night on a selfless feed from Milan Lucic, Kessel increased his playoff output to five goals in his last four postseason games. Savard was quick to note that Kessel played a big role in the Bruins’ third goal, too, magnetically drawing defenders during a power play that left Zdeno Chara open for the goal that broke a 2-2 tie and proved to be the game-winner.

After the game, standing before his locker, the most breathtaking skater on the Bruins spoke the way he always speaks: in short sentences devoid of passion, creativity, or life. That is simply who he is. The contrast in Kessel’s play and his persona are impossible to overlook, though it is a paradox the Bruins are happy to live with as long as this miraculous role reversal continues.

As long as the Kessel who makes news is the one on the ice.

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About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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