TORONTO (Reuters) - A massive billboard with the smiling face of Toronto Maple Leafs sniper Phil Kessel looks down on all those who enter the Air Canada Centre.
But the reclusive winger had little reason to smile on Monday as his team’s first home playoff game in nine years ended in a 5-2 loss to the Boston Bruins, leaving Toronto trailing the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarter-final 2-1.
Despite four productive seasons in a blue-and-white Maple Leafs jersey, Kessel’s contributions have never been quite enough to satisfy the team’s demanding fans.
Kessel found the back of the Boston net for the second consecutive game but was also guilty of a costly miscue that led to a shorthanded Bruins goal and gave the visitors a 4-1 second period lead.
“I thought we worked hard and did a lot of good things but our execution level and the mistakes that we made aren’t going to allow us to win a hockey game,” lamented Toronto coach Randy Carlyle. “You have to give the opposition credit, they came in they played hard, they forced us and we made some mistakes and they won the hockey game.”
Painfully shy, Kessel, unless pressed, rarely shares his thoughts with a veracious Toronto media and was nowhere to be seen following Monday’s game, his skates hung up in an empty locker leaving linemate Tyler Bozak to sum up his performance.
“I thought he played good,” Bozak told reporters. “He generated a lot of shots for himself, he set up plays to me and a few other guys, the puck was around him a lot, he was carrying it so I thought he did a good job.”
A pure scorer with blazing speed and a lightning quick release, Kessel has been Toronto’s leading scorer every season since Boston traded him to Toronto four years ago.
He has generated 119 regular season goals for the Leafs but just three have come against his former team.
The 25-year-old winger was held scoreless by Bruins during the regular season, the frustration and criticism mounting with each barren shift.
The Bruins have been Kessel’s personal nemesis ever since he was dealt to Leafs in September 2009 for Toronto’s first and second round picks in the 2010 NHL draft and another first round selection in 2011.
It was a viewed as a spectacularly high price to pay for a gifted but one-dimensional player.
The Bruins used the 2010 pick to select highly-rated Tyler Seguin second overall and in 2011 grabbed Dougie Hamilton. It is those two talents against which Kessel’s value is weighed.
Bruins fans certainly believe they came away the big winners in the trade, gleefully gloating with a chant of “Thank you, Kessel” each time Sequin scores against Toronto.
It is a trade that has obsessed Leafs Nation.
Dissected time-and-time again, there remains no clear verdict about who won one of the most controversial trades ever consummated by the Original Six rivals.
Kessel’s performance in his first playoff series with the Leafs will not end the debate but only add to it.
Part of key to Kessel contributing more to the Toronto cause will lie with Carlyle and his ability to keep his leading scorer away from towering Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara, who has shadowed the two-time All-Star and driven him to distraction.
Carlyle says that no matter how he juggles his lines, Kessel is going to find himself matched up against Chara and will have to find a way to meet the challenge.
”It’s not as easy as you think knowing he (Chara) is going to be out there for every defensive zone faceoff,“ explained Carlyle. ”You can try and work around it but in some situations you have to play your offensive players.
“There were shifts he had to play against Chara. That has to happen sometimes.”
Editing by Frank Pingue