Kessel helps Leafs strike back against Bruins
TORONTO — Phil Kessel’s revenge. Sort of. Payback with an asterisk.
The record still shows that Kessel, the former first-round draft pick traded here by the Bruins some 15 months ago, still hasn’t officially scored a goal against his former Black-and-Gold mates. But he struck here for a shootout goal last night, snapping a forehander through the pads of goalie Tim Thomas to lead the sagging, desperate-for-a-break Leafs to a 3-2 victory on a night in which a brilliant Thomas (38 saves) otherwise stole the show.
Thomas, the early favorite to win what would be his second Vezina Trophy in three seasons, was sensational across three-plus periods, and only yielded the tying goal with 42 seconds remaining in regulation when the Leafs skated with a 6-on-4 advantage (Patrice Bergeron off for holding and goalie J.S. Giguere pulled for an extra attacker). One-time Boston prospect Kris Versteeg scored the equalizer, connecting into an open left side after Clarke MacArthur’s shot from the right side ricocheted off the rear boards and came directly to Versteeg in the left wing faceoff circle.
“That’s another way the league makes it hard on goalies,’’ said Thomas, whose greatest stop of the night came of Francois Beauchemin, a diving glove stop of the defenseman at 1:30 of overtime. “All the new buildings in the league have boards like those.’’
Thomas, beaten in the shootout by Toronto’s first shooter, Nazem Kadri, had a perfect read on Kessel as his fellow ex-US Olympian came storming straight down Broadway. After a couple of clever dekes, Kessel opted for a forehand snap between Thomas’s pads. Thomas got some stuffing on it, but as he slid back into his net, the puck had enough momentum to follow him across the goal line.
“Yeah, I slid into the net,’’ said Thomas, who banged his big hockey stick hard against the pipes after Kessel’s strike. “They scrape the ice for the OT and it’s more slippery than any other time. I made the save . . . but you can’t stop sliding.’’
When a reporter in the postgame media scrum noted that it was Kessel who scored the winner, Thomas added, “That’s the fifth time [they’ve opposed each other] . . . it’s the first time he’s won the battle.’’
Slip slidin’ away in the Eastern Conference, the Leafs were desperate to find a toehold in the standings after going 1-4-1 in their previous six games. Kessel, a winger since arriving here, volunteered Friday to play center (his natural position) and manned the pivot all night, playing mostly with Colby Armstrong and Versteeg. On the tying goal, Kessel won the draw (he went 6 for 16 on the night) against Gregory Campbell that eventually led to MacArthur’s shot.
“Good for Phil,’’ said Leafs coach Ron Wilson, adding that he has confidence in Kessel’s work at the faceoff dot. “Finally, a break . . . we haven’t been getting many breaks.’’
The Bruins followed a familiar pattern with their slow-to-warm start, which led to the Leafs outshooting them, 12-5, in the first period. The Bruins managed a brief lead in the first when Nathan Horton connected, ending a stretch of nine games without a goal, but Carl Gunnarsson made it even again at 15:53 of the first when he gambled down low from his defense spot and banged in a Tyler Bozak cross-slot feed.
“We got what we deserved tonight,’’ said a mildly disgruntled Claude Julien, not pleased to see his club lapse into the slow start. “We were lucky to get a point.’’
Julien ended his postgame media chat when a reporter asked if he felt it was inevitable that one day Kessel would produce against his former employers.
“It’s a shootout,’’ said a shrugging Julien, he who once made Kessel a scratch in a playoff series against Montreal. “So . . .’’
And with that abrupt ending, Julien exited.
Campbell provided the go-ahead goal, 2-1, with 6:08 gone in the third, just seconds after relieving Marc Savard. Off the bench, he first made a nice stop to keep the puck in the offensive zone, dished left to Tyler Seguin, and then ripped a return pass from Seguin past Giguere.
“Yeah, kept in there by about an inch,’’ said Campbell, noting the play at the blue line. “Then Seguin made a nice heads-up play to get it back to me.’’
Savard, playing in only his second game, landed three shots on net, but slumped a little at the faceoff dot (3 for 10). He also played on a power-play unit that went 0 for 2.
Michael Ryder had a chance to extend the shootout, following Kessel’s goal, but his attempt rang off the base of the left post to end it.
All in all, an exciting game among Original Six fraternity brothers. And Kessel, even though he officially took a Full Thornton (0-0—0), finally had a “Boston’’ moment to put in his bank, which annually also collects $5.4 million from his current employer.