Don’t let them fool you. Goal scorers have nightmares, too. And for Phil Kessel, the Bruins’ leading goal scorer, his 14-game drought was anything but a dream.
Prior to the Bruins’ road trip to Carolina and Florida last week, Kessel and coach Claude Julien stood face to face along the half-wall of the Bruins’ practice ice surface in Wilmington. The morning skate was over, but as usual, some players opted to stay out and pepper goaltender Manny Fernandez with pucks without having to go through any drills. Kessel and Julien weren’t participating. By the time they were done talking, most of the team was off the ice.
Unless you could read lips or translate hand gestures, much of the dialogue was unknown. But amidst Kessel’s scoring drought, which resembles every hockey player’s worst nightmare, Julien was trying to deliver his message clearly: We need you.
“As I explained to him, don’t wait for it to happen,” said Julien. “Go out there and make it happen. You want to see your players work through it, and that’s his intention. I’m just making sure that we’re encouraging him to take that approach, and go with it.
“Some people wait for it to happen, and some people work to make it happen,” continued Julien. “That’s the message that we’re giving him. Don’t stop doing things, or don’t be afraid to do extra to get yourself going again. If you have to shoot 100 pucks before or after practice, then do it.”
That approach lasted for what seemed an eternity. Kessel entered last weekend’s back-to-back games at Florida and Tampa Bay not having scored a goal since Jan. 3. Mononucleosis put him out of action for 2½ weeks in mid-January, and since his return on Jan. 29, he had gone 11 games without a goal.
But 1:38 into last Sunday’s game against the Lightning, a streaking Kessel took a Marc Savard pass in the slot and beat Tampa Bay goalie Karri Ramo to the low stick side for his first score in 14 games. The Bruins lost, 4-3, but seeing Kessel break out of his slump was a boost for a team that’s lacked the offensive surge it displayed in the first half of the season.
“We’ve been waiting for a while for that to happen,” said Julien. “Last game was a good time to start. Again, we can talk about all these things, guys, but one game doesn’t necessarily get a guy out of a funk. He’s got to be able to come out tonight and do the same thing he did [against Tampa Bay], and I think that’s what we’re looking for from everybody on this squad.”
Kessel’s team-leading 24 goals before early January had a lot to do with the Bruins’ winning ways. Since Michael Ryder (19 goals) went down with a facial fracture on Feb. 5, putting him out of action for seven games, the Bruins have been relying on Kessel’s quick-release wrist shot.
But Kessel’s nightmare wasn’t going away easily. Even with a prime opportunity to end the Feb. 21 game in overtime, Kessel couldn’t convert on a breakaway chance with just seconds to play, putting even more pressure on the third-year winger to dig himself out of a hole that was getting deeper by the shift.
Julien had done all that he could; a pep talk, a line change. What was next? Even though it seemed to work in last year’s playoff series against Montreal, benching Kessel wouldn’t do the team any good. The Bruins were already dealing with injuries to Ryder and Petteri Nokelainen (eye). So for several games, Julien moved Kessel to the right wing with David Krejci and Vladimir Sobotka or Martins Karsums, while Wheeler manned the right wing with Savard and Milan Lucic on the top line.
“In Phil’s case, it’s a situation where he hasn’t scored in a long time,” said Julien at the time of the line change. “Maybe moving him around will give him that spark. Whatever it takes to get him to score some goals again and feel really good about himself. That’s basically what it is. There’s no bad intentions behind it. It’s all with the initiative of hoping to get us to score some more goals.”
Kessel started last Sunday’s game on the top line with Savard and Lucic, and goal No.25 didn’t even take two full minutes. The loss didn’t move his team from atop the Eastern Conference standings, but Kessel’s renewed confidence is something the Bruins need more of if they want to stay there.
Danny Picard covers the Bruins for OT and can be reached at email@example.com
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