With maturity, Kessel keeps his promise
When the Bruins selected Phil Kessel with the fifth overall pick in the 2006 NHL draft, the team banked on the 18-year-old becoming a crucial piece of the team's offensive puzzle.
That day has certainly arrived, as heading into Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Carolina Kessel had emerged as a top scoring threat on a line with Marc Savard and P.J. Axelsson. Proving the point, Kessel was in the middle of the action last night, gathering two assists in the Bruins' 4-1 victory.
In the four games against Montreal in the quarterfinals, Kessel had four goals and two assists.
A year ago, Kessel had 37 points in 82 regular-season games. This year, he racked up a team-high 36 goals on the way to 60 points in 70 contests. Kessel missed a half-dozen games in January and another six down the stretch because of injury. Coach Claude Julien said the time away may have helped.
"Sometimes a little bit of rest can also work in your favor," said Julien. "He came back with lots of energy. Again, when you sit up there sometimes and watch games, you really kind of miss it so when you get back, you're pretty excited to be back in the lineup. That's a combination of a lot of things with Phil.
"He just continues to grow as an elite player. It's about pushing himself and we've been pushing him to continue to get better. He's taken a real good attitude this year, accepting that responsibility and that role. I think he's had a great year . . . Having said that, having a great year is one thing. I still think there is still lots more in him with time and experience that's going to make him a better player."
In his young career, Kessel has played in nine postseason games and accounted for seven goals and five assists. Julien said that is no coincidence that Kessel elevates his game when it counts the most.
"He's a game-breaker type of player," said Julien. "Sometimes you may not see him as much and you kind of wonder where he may be, but he's going to pull a move or he's going to score a goal that is going to be a game-breaker-type goal. That's what Phil is.
"It's easy to give credit to the guys that you see diving in front of pucks and throwing their bodies around and showing a lot of grit, but it also takes the other types of players, too, who bring something different to the table. Phil may not be the most physical player but he'll certainly score the big goals when you need them and that's what makes a good team is you've got a little bit of everything."
Having a player such as Axelsson on the line aids Kessel because of the veteran's superior defensive skills.
"[Kessel is] probably feeling comfortable that there's a guy with experience on his line that is very reliable defensively," said Julien. "It gives you a little bit of comfort knowing that you can go out and play well offensively and know there is somebody there that is certainly going to back you if you get yourself in trouble a little bit.
"But, having said that, Phil has been good defensively. He's been a guy we've put in in the late minutes of a close game and he's been responsible enough to protect that lead. He's come a long way."
Savard, the Bruins' leading scorer, had two goals and three assists in the Montreal sweep and two more last night. He said he has enjoyed watching Kessel develop into one of the league's most exciting forwards.
"He competes more," said Savard. "He wants to be a presence every night and I think that's what he strives for. All year I have pushed him to want more, to want to generate offense, to want to contribute every night. He started to get that and now he's just been incredible since the start of the year. We really roll together, we love playing together and we have a lot of fun."
Savard said of all the players he has skated with, Kessel is among the tops in terms of talent.
"He brings a dynamic aspect to the game with his speed and his skill," said Savard. "It's been a lot of fun playing with him. I've played with a lot of great goal scorers - Ilya [Kovalchuk], [Jarome] Iginla, and [Dany] Heatley, and he ranks right up there. He's obviously coming into his own."
Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at email@example.com.