Phil Kessel was back home last night, not in Madison, Wis., but smack dab in the middle of Wayne Primeau and Shean Donovan. A lifelong center, Kessel was home again in the pivot, playing his position of choice and instinct, because the Bruins nowadays are in the unsavory position of being stuck among the cellar-dwellers of the NHL's Eastern Conference.
Kessel, 19, began the season at left wing, which is fairly standard procedure for NHL newbies. It's tough enough for a teenager to begin to make his way in a man's game, but a teenager who has to play center has a truckload of extra variables in play -- most of them defensive responsibilities -- that make the transition to the pro game more difficult, and sometimes harrowing.
"As the center, you have to be down low in your own zone," explained Patrice Bergeron, who not long ago was a lifetime-center-turned-winger when he arrived as a rookie in the Hub of Hockey in 2003. "You've always got to be helping your defensemen, and the one-on-one coverage is crucial down there -- you don't want to get beat."
Despite the inherent risks, coach Dave Lewis made up his mind over the weekend to move Kessel to the slot. The math was obvious: nine games played, 19 goals.
Those weren't Kessel's numbers. Ah, the visions of a young Wayne Gretzky. Those were Boston's total numbers, ranking the Bruins No. 30 in goals in a 30-team league. There may have been a risk in moving Kessel to the middle. But when ranked dead last in offense, how much of a risk is there in putting one of the club's few offensive promises in his best position to succeed?
"Time to move," said Lewis, acknowledging there were times last month when Kessel looked slightly out of place as a center trapped in a winger's body. "You go back to what you are."
So, at least for a night, Phil the Thrill, as he was known at the University of Minnesota, was Phil the Rookie Center. He lined up with Primeau on his left and Donovan on his right. That alignment in itself was a slight surprise, because Kessel for three days practiced between P.J. Axelsson and Glen Murray. However, with Marco Sturm off the injured list and reunited with Bergeron and Brad Boyes, Lewis continued to reconfigure his trios, all of which left the chemistry of the newly formed Kessel line to be discovered when the puck was dropped last night with the Sabres in town.
"You know, we really haven't done anything as a line," Kessel said upon reporting for duty late yesterday afternoon on Causeway Street. "All we got to do [in the morning skate] was pass the puck a little bit. So . . . we'll see how it goes."
All in all, it went OK for Kessel and crew, despite the fact the Bruins booted away a 4-1 lead late in the third and suffered a demoralizing 5-4 shootout loss to arguably the best team in hockey.
"I'm pretty disappointed right now -- that was a tough one to swallow," said Kessel, emerging from the somber state of the Boston dressing room.
With 24 seconds to go in overtime, Kessel was alone at the left post, and fanned on what should have been an easy pot for the winner. Fellow rookie Matt Lashoff, deep on the attack in the four on four, sent over a delicious cross-slot pass and Kessel, parked and ready, bollixed the bunny.
"Just missed it, I guess," said the chagrined rookie pivot. "No excuse. You have to bury that to win. So I'm disappointed in that. In the end, we didn't get it done, again."
Be it Kessel's line, or Bergeron's line, or Marc Savard's line (with Axelsson and Murray), or the Line To Be Named At Today's Practice, something has to get hot, and soon. If not, the Bruins will be so buried in the East that not even Gretzky or Lemieux or Esposito in the middle would save them from yet another postseason DNQ.
Savard's line led the way on offense. It was by far the veteran center's best game. He potted a goal and picked up two assists, a night that must be considered almost gaudy by the club's current offensive standards. It was baffling he wasn't designated one of the Black and Gold's three shooters in the shootout.
Kessel, no doubt, will have his, uh, quirky moments of learning defense on the job, but the Bruins no longer have the luxury of allowing him to cook up his game on a low simmer, like some human Crock-Pot along the boards. He may get burned, but there's equal chance he may do some of the burning.
Lewis, once a kid on the Islander defense, prior to their run of four Cups at the start of the '80s, harkened back to the 1977 draft when the Isles had the No. 15 pick, one ahead of Boston. The name presented to then-coach Al Arbour was that of Mike Bossy, a prolific goal scorer from Laval in the Quebec League. The book on Bossy: incredible scoring touch with a lightning-fast release, but little or no presence in the defensive zone. Hockey cliché 101: could not check his hat.
"And Al's answer to that," recalled Lewis, "was, 'No problem. I can teach him to play defense.' "
By the following spring, Bossy wrapped up his rookie season in the NHL with 53 goals, the first of nine straight seasons he scored 50 or more. He finished with 573 goals in 752 games before a bad back, not bad checking, forced him into early retirement at age 30.
"If you could give me a little of that kind of help," said Lewis, dwelling on Bossy's many prolific seasons, "I'd appreciate it."
Phil the Thrill may one day turn out to be the main man in the middle of Boston's offense, but not after one night. He posted three shots in the first period, but was blanked over the final 45 minutes. Primeau and Donovan combined for four shots on the night.
Perhaps most encouraging, Kessel wasn't guilty of a major defensive gaffe. In fact, with 5:50 to go in the first, he knocked the puck from flashy winger Maxim Afinogenov deep in the Boston zone. With Primeau and Donovan his wingers, he'll likely have to generate most of his shots off his own speed, and hope one of his wingers can bull to the net for rebound putaways.
No thrills for Phil, but also no spills, and that's OK. He'll be back home in the middle tomorrow night when the Lightning come to town.