Before Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Boston Bruins, Phil Kessel did the expected tap dance around his embarrassing performances against his former team since the infamous trade that brought him to Toronto in 2009.
“It’s been four years now. It’s another game,” he said.
Sure, just another game. Another game of ineffective play that’s the polar opposite of his stellar offensive numbers against the rest of the conference. Another game in which Kessel’s lack of offense was magnified by the offensive spark shown by the Bruins tasked with stopping him.
Boston won Game 1, 4-1, despite the Leafs jumping out to a 1-0 lead 1:54 into the game. Kessel was on the ice for that one, a power-play goal by James van Rimesdyk. He was invisible the rest of the game: One shot on goal, his only shot attempt in 13:51 of ice time – his lowest TOI since April 13, a 5-1 win over Montreal.
Contrast that with the line that took on his unit: Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and Tyler Seguin. They didn’t tally a point, but they buzzed around the Leafs zone and set the tone for the Bruins: 23 shots attempted, including seven from Seguin, whom the Bruins drafted using one of the Leafs’ picks in the Kessel trade.
But more than anything, that line and the Bruins’ defense took away the seventh leading scorer in the NHL (52 points) away from the Leafs – yet again.
In his last 10 regular-season games against the B’s, Kessel has one goal, two assists and is a minus-15. Overall since the trade, he has three goals and six assists in 23 games vs. Boston, with a minus-22.
Which isn’t very good, by our math.
There are two ways of looking at Kessel vs. the Leafs.
The first is that it’s completely understandable that any offensive star that has to face unholy defensive trinity of Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg and Patrice Bergeron isn’t going to perform like an offensive star. There isn’t another team in the NHL that can deploy that kind of straightjacket on an opposing player.
The other way is that domination of Kessel is something beyond that, and that his absence from the score sheet and as an offensive catalyst against Boston is inexcusable.
Whatever the case, this series is Kessel’s moment to put the “KESSEL TRADE” stuff to bed, and to stifle all the catcalls from the TD Garden seats. It’s a chance for him to point and say “scoreboard” in a head-to-head playoff matchup against his tormentors.
It didn’t begin well.