No. 5: By all accounts, Phil Kessel had a solid sophomore season in the NHL leading into the Boston Bruins’ playoff series with Montreal.
As a rookie, he’d fought off testicular cancer and showed flashes of brilliance en route to 11 goals and 18 assists in 70 games. In his second season last winter, he skated in all 82 games and put up 19-18-37 totals. But after the Bruins were dominated in a 4-1 loss to the Habs in Game 1 in Montreal, head coach Claude Julien decided to shake things up — and his target was Kessel.
The then-20-year-old right winger was shipped up to the press box for Games 2, 3 and 4 — of which Boston won just one. What followed after a 1-0 Game 4 loss with the reinsertion of Kessel into the line-up is a story worthy of the top 10 of ’08.
Looking to reinvigorate his offense, Julien suited up Kessel, who proceeded to score a second-period game-tying goal in a 5-1 win that sent the series back to Boston.
“Obviously, it’s tough,” Kessel said after that game about the benching. “I don’t know if you can really use it (for motivation). But you just try to stay focused the best you can and if you get a chance you try to make the most of it.”
Two nights later, Kessel scored twice more in a dramatic 5-4 win that forced a Game 7. While the Bruins were blanked 5-0 in the final game, the red-hot finish to the playoff series for Kessel acted as a sort of springboard for what’s been a breakout ’08-09 season thus far.
Kessel has already exceeded his career highs for goals with 21 and points with 37 through the first 35 games of the current campaign. And his three-zone play has grown by leaps and bounds. While he still downplays the effect the benching had on him, his Lazarus-like return to the line-up was a turning point. And now he continues to show why the Bruins used the fifth overall pick in ’06 on him in the first place.