The thought of building upon last season's strong finish echoes throughout the Boston Bruins organization from top to bottom, and that overriding theme may not resonate more with anyone else than it does with Phil Kessel.
Kessel was listed as a healthy scratch for Games 2, 3, and 4 of the Bruins' seven-game series against the Montreal Canadiens. He returned in Games 5 and 6 with three goals combined and became the spark plug to a much-needed offensive surge, helping force Game 7.
The young forward has now had a full offseason to think about the games he watched from the ninth floor at the Garden, and has started his third NHL season just as strong as he finished last postseason, with two goals in the first two games.
"I need to have a better year this year than I did last year," said Kessel, who had a 19-18-37 line last season. "I'm going to go out there and work hard, and hopefully have a better season."
"A lot of it has to do with maturity and experience mixed together," said Bruins coach Claude Julien. "He's older and he's got more experience. He's obviously realizing what it takes every night to compete at this level more and more, and the experience is kicking in."
Julien has put the 21-year-old on the right wing with Patrice Bergeron and Marco Sturm in the early stages of the season. So far it seems to be working. Kessel found open ice in both Colorado (Thursday) and Minnesota (Saturday), scoring the first goal of both games on point-blank snap shots from the high slot.
Kessel's ability to put the puck in the net has never been an issue, but his level of grit, or lack thereof, along the boards raised concerns in the past.
"We knew his talent level has always been there," said Julien. "It was the other stuff that had to come along, and I think he's made some really good strides, as far as that's concerned. His whole approach and attitude this year is even better than it was last year."
Rookie Blake Wheeler is quite familiar with Kessel's skills. Kessel centered a line with Wheeler on his right wing at the University of Minnesota in 2005-06. The two remained good friends after Kessel's departure for the NHL after only one year in college, but Wheeler hadn't skated with his former linemate since then.
After only three games, Wheeler sees the improvements.
"His work ethic definitely has increased," said Wheeler. "You don't look at Phil and think he's going to outwork a lot of guys, but from his time in Minnesota to now, I think he's really learned how the game is played and that you have to do those little things to be successful.
"The thing about Phil is, once you get him into open space, and you get him alone with the goalie, there aren't many out there that are going to stop him," he added. "He's on the wing now, so he's had to get his nose dirty a little bit more. That's one of those things, in Minnesota you wouldn't really see Phil getting into the corners too much. He played center, so he was in the middle of the ice more. Now he's on the wing, so he's got to get down there and he's got to work on winning those battles, and I think he's done a good job of it."
Same game, different feel
Preseason games don't have the same intensity as games that actually count. Wheeler found that out firsthand when he took the ice for the first time as an official member of the Bruins last Thursday in Colorado.
"You can't really know what the game speed is going to be like until you get out there, and then you just have to react," said Wheeler. "Once you kind of get used to how fast everyone's moving, then you can kind of slow your mind down and focus a little bit better.
"From Colorado to Minnesota, it was like night and day for me," said Wheeler of the difference in his first two NHL games. "I felt myself getting more comfortable in Colorado, but once I got on the ice in Minnesota, for some reason it just kind of clicked in."
Wheeler scored his first career goal just under 11 minutes into the first period of his first game ... Milan Lucic has been skating on the left wing with David Krejci and Wheeler since Chuck Kobasew fractured his right ankle in Thursday night's 5-4 win over Colorado.
Danny Picard covers the Bruins for OT and can be reached at email@example.com
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Danny Picard is on the ice with the Bruins.
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