On hockey

Upon return, Kessel had nowhere to go

Visits weren’t scrapbook material for pressed Leaf

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / December 11, 2009

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Phil Kessel came and went again without a peep last night, his second visit to his old home in less than a week, and again the speedy winger known for his scoring touch didn’t find his way onto the score sheet.

Kessel is now 0-for-Boston as a Maple Leaf. Two games. No goals. No points. And both nights he displayed no penchant for getting into the areas where hard work and determination can lead to scoring opportunities.

If you’ve been paying attention the last three years, that should sound familiar. Kessel scores off his speed, which he has in abundance, and he also has a clever, hard, and sometimes accurate wrist shot, which he used often last season when he led the Bruins with 36 goals.

But when those tantalizing tools are denied him, as the Bruins did Saturday and again last night, there isn’t much else in the No. 81 tool kit. All of which is why the Bruins had their, shall we say, reservations about keeping him in the Hub as one of the club’s core players.

“Hard for me to answer,’’ said Boston coach Claude Julien, asked if he felt Kessel was fighting the puck or whether the winger’s ineffectiveness could be attributed to the clamps the Bruins put on him all night. “Is he fighting it? When Phil doesn’t have much room, that’s normally what happens - whether it is with them or with us.

“He didn’t battle through much and we didn’t give him much room. He’s a great skater and a pure goal scorer, with a quick release. I think our guys didn’t give him much and he didn’t battle through it.’’

Kessel’s view of last night’s 0-0 -0 (a.k.a. “The Full Thornton’’ here in the Hub of Heartbreak) is unknown. While the media contingent waited for him to emerge from the dressing area after the 5-2 loss, he made a hasty retreat stage right, adroitly slipping the media-on-man defense. When a veteran scribe (see name above) hotfooted directly behind him and asked if he had a minute, the 22-year-old winger never turned around, shook his head, and kept walking.

Again, not one to battle . . . through . . . much.

“We didn’t give him a lot of room,’’ said veteran winger Mark Recchi, who scored twice for the Bruins, and is someone who knows well the quirks of returning to play in a city that was once home. “We also didn’t turn the puck over much and they didn’t get much off the rush.

“So, hey, he’s a very talented kid. We know that. And we had Z [Zdeno Chara] out there against him almost every shift. I just don’t think he looked relaxed out there.’’

Kessel will get his goals. For that matter, he already has 10 this season, in only 18 games, which has helped justify the Leafs promising him $27 million over the next five years - a $5.4 million-a-year average that was some 30 percent more than the Bruins wanted to pay him. But some of his fresh-start adrenaline has worn off over the last four games. Prior to coming to Boston Saturday, he picked up 10 goals and 15 points, firing an impressive bundle of 76 shots in 14 games. He now has posted only one assist over his last four games, collecting only nine shots.

Truth is, Kessel is in one of those lulls, one of those quiet periods, that he often had when he was racing around with that Spoked-B on his chest.

“Well, some guys know him here and I think he played a lot against Z,’’ said David Krejci, one of Kessel’s close pals during his short Boston tenure. “So it was a tough night for him again and that’s what we have to do - take away their best players.’’

The two sides come together next Saturday night in Toronto, where Leafs coach Ron Wilson will have a strategic edge, the ability to steer Kessel’s line away from Chara’s long reach, long stick, and longer shadow. Will we see a different Kessel there? No telling. Based on what we saw here, we at least won’t see worse.

And, that said, Kessel showed slight signs of improvement in Game 2 of “Kesselmania.’’ He squeezed off two shots instead of none. He also finished even in plus-minus, a vast improvement over his ugly minus-3 Saturday night. Combined, his two nights here amounted to “Kesselmundania.’’

Meanwhile, the Bruins only hope that the other 28 NHL teams roll out the “Kill Phil’’ game plan every time they play the Leafs. Every “L’’ posted by the Blue-and-White moves Boston a step closer to a lottery pick in next June’s draft. For swapping Kessel to the Leafs, the Bruins have Toronto’s first-round pick in 2010 and 2011, as well as its second pick in 2010.

There are two keys to the Leafs winning games: 1. Kessel and 2. goaltending. Last night they had neither. And unless they can solve their goaltending issue, even a blistering-hot Kessel won’t keep them from sticking near the bottom of the standings.

“It’s amazing,’’ said Julien, musing over the “Kesselmania’’ hype the last week-plus. “I thought we were playing hockey, not wrestling. I thought we did a good job of not letting that stuff get to us. We just focused on the games.’’

But the spotlight was on Kessel, still quick, still clever, but still delivering less than advertised.

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