BOSTON – Even if he won’t admit it, Phil Kessel has to be rankled at least a little bit that of his 30 goals scored in the NHL last season, none came against the Bruins.
Regardless of why a player is dealt away by a club – and we still don’t know for sure if Kessel asked for a trade or the Bruins just decided to ship him out prior to last October’s trade with Toronto – any athlete with a healthy amount of pride wants to make his former team regret the decision to jettison him.
But today after the morning skate at TD Garden in preparation for Leafs’ first matchup of this season with the Bruins, Kessel was downplaying the importance of facing his old club.
“It is just another regular-season game, right? Obviously I played here a couple of years. I loved playing here. But hopefully tonight we can go out there and get two points,” said the speedy winger who’s off to a fast start with seven goals in eight games for the 5-2-1 Leafs.
“I don’t want to stick it to them,” he continued. “I want to, obviously, play well, right? Last year, I had a lot of chances. I just didn’t score, right? Hopefully I can change that this year and the most important thing is just getting wins.”
There are several reasons the Bruins were able to bottle up Kessel last season. The biggest one, of course, was Zdeno Chara. The Bruins’ captain seemingly was in Kessel’s way every time the Toronto forward turned around.
“Well we’ve been a good defensive team the last couple years and prided ourselves on that, so I don’t think it’s only when Phil comes to town. We try to key on every teams’ top guys, and obviously we have the manpower – and Zee – to do it,” said Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference. “He’s out there all the time against the top lines and [we have] good goaltending. So it’s a combination of things. It’s frustrating for top guys when Zee’s on his game. And if you do get by that first line of defense, we’ve got some guys making pretty good saves.”
That good goaltending is scheduled to be represented by Tim Thomas tonight. The veteran, who hasn’t played since last Thursday, knows his former teammate is one of the more important players to keep an eye on during the action.
“Well, it isn’t Boston Bruins vs. Phil Kessel. It’s Boston Bruins vs. the Toronto Maple Leafs. Phil is definitely a part and we have to be aware of him,” said Thomas. “It takes a lot of hard work. You have to be on your toes all the time because he’s so explosive, so fast, and he’s got that quick snap shot. As a goalie, I have to be on my toes and try to find it through traffic because he gets it through traffic too. That’s how I’m going to deal with it.”
Despite the goose egg on his ledger, Kessel doesn’t think he has to change much against the Bruins this time around. He chalks up his lack of success last season to not burying his chances and a solid defensive game plan by Boston. Leafs head coach Ron Wilson believes Kessel is better suited this season to meet the challenge from the Bruins, and every team, for a full 60 minutes.
“I think one thing is that he had no injuries or issues health-wise to deal with, so he got to put in a full summer of working out off the ice. He’s in much better shape than he’s ever been. He’s probably stronger. You can see that in his sustained quickness on the ice, from the drop of the puck early in the game, right through to the end of the game. Last year, he scored a lot of goals early in games and then faded. This year, he’s been effective in all three periods.”