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Leafs' Phil Kessel is scoring – and smiling – again

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FIRST PERIOD

There is a reason Phil Kessel(notes) looks like a different player since the all-star break.

“Yeah,” coach Ron Wilson said Wednesday night, after Kessel scored the tying goal and set up the overtime winner in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 3-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins. “He drives that new car around town. He feels really good about it.”

OK, that was a joke. It isn’t the car Kessel received as a consolation prize for being the last pick in the Fantasy Draft, in which the captains picked their teams in the new format for the All-Star Game.

Kessel is scoring because, well, he’s scoring. As with so many streaky goal-scorers, goals beget goals, success begets success and confidence snowballs for Kessel, elevating the other parts of his game, not to mention his mood.

“He just gets happy,” Wilson said. “Scoring is a fun thing to do. If you’re a player, that’s all you want to do, and if you don’t get that the feeling, he gets depressed and it affects his whole game. When he scores, everything just takes off from there.”

When Kessel received that snazzy Honda in Raleigh, N.C., he was seven games into what would become a 14-game goal drought. He handled the last-pick thing with class, but it was yet another opportunity for critics to cast him as a disappointment.

Already uncomfortable in the spotlight, Kessel is playing in the hockey capital of Toronto under immense pressure to produce because general manager Brian Burke gave up so much for him in a trade with the Boston Bruins on Sept. 18, 2009 – two first-round picks and a second-rounder.

Wilson said the Leafs are trying to teach Kessel that he isn’t in Toronto only to score, that the top goal-scorers put the puck in the net in maybe half their games, so they need to have redeeming qualities the rest of the time.

But there are coaching lessons, and then there is human nature. Kessel, who had five goals in four games before that 14-game drought, is hot again. He has eight goals in eight games, and so he’s forechecking and backchecking and playmaking better, too. He also has five assists in that span, including a pretty quick-tip pass to Mikhail Grabovski(notes) for Wednesday’s winner.

“Now he’s not gripping the stick,” Leafs winger Clarke MacArthur(notes) said. “He’s not thinking twice, and he’s made some great passes. He’s not just a shooter. He’s got guys in the open. So all in all, his game is well-rounded right now.”

And he’s getting the breaks. He scored Wednesday night when defenseman Carl Gunnarsson(notes) fired a shot that deflected off his pants and past goaltender Marc Andre-Fleury.

“I’ll take it, right?” said Kessel, who now has 27 goals (but still has a minus-20 rating). “It was going bad for a while there, but I think it’s changed around.”

The Leafs are 9-2-4 in their past 15 games. They’re four points behind the eighth-place Carolina Hurricanes and two behind the ninth-place Buffalo Sabres in the Eastern Conference.

“We’re definitely in the race,” captain Dion Phaneuf(notes) said.

But Thursday night, the Leafs face the Philadelphia Flyers, the top team in the East, and Saturday night, they play the Chicago Blackhawks, who are looking more like the defending Stanley Cup champions again. The schedule down the stretch is difficult, and though the Leafs added winger Joffrey Lupul(notes) before the trade deadline, they subtracted veterans Francois Beauchemin(notes), Tomas Kaberle(notes) and Kris Versteeg(notes).

No pressure, but Kessel better keep himself smiling.

“Once he scores a goal, that just lights him up for a while, and hopefully it’s for another six weeks,” Wilson said. “You need your best players to perform at the biggest times, and we’re getting that from Phil.”

SECOND PERIOD

He had no idea. Really, why would James Neal(notes) have been nervous before the NHL trade deadline? Why would he have thought that the Dallas Stars would part with a 6-foot-2, 208-pound left winger who has scored more than 20 goals in each of his three NHL seasons and at age 23 has the potential to produce even more?

Neal said Feb. 21 was a normal day. Went to practice. Went for lunch. Went back to his apartment. “Same old,” he said. And then his phone started buzzing. Got a call from his agent. Got a text message telling him to call Stars general manager Joe Nieuwendyk.

He said it was a “total shock” when he found out he had been traded with defenseman Matt Niskanen(notes) to the Penguins for defenseman Alex Goligoski(notes). He said he had a good relationship with Nieuwendyk and no problems with Stars coach Marc Crawford.

“That’s mainly why it was a shock,” Neal said. “They wanted a puck-moving defenseman, and Goligoski was the guy they wanted. You’ve got to give up something to get something, so … It just happened to be me.”

Eventually Neal will have the chance to play with one of the best players in the world in Pittsburgh, though that player won’t necessarily be Sidney Crosby(notes).

People have long said that the Penguins need to find a winger for Crosby, and when the Penguins acquired Neal, they figured he would be the man. But the Penguins were pleased with how Chris Kunitz(notes) was playing on Crosby’s left wing before a concussion knocked Crosby out of the lineup. Crosby had 32 goals and 66 points in 41 games before he was injured.

So Neal will play with star center Evgeni Malkin(notes) when Malkin returns from a knee injury next season, right? Maybe, but maybe with Jordan Staal(notes) at center and Malkin on the right wing. The Penguins wanted to put Staal and Malkin together this season already and have another emerging center in Mark Letestu(notes).

“Is Neal a better fit than Chris Kunitz for Sidney Crosby?” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma asked rhetorically, pointing out how well Kunitz and Crosby had meshed. “But ideally next to one of those players … getting the puck in situations where he can score goals, that’s where we see Neal in the future.”

Neal isn’t worried about fitting in with the Penguins. He got a good idea of what the organization is all about from watching HBO’s all-access reality series “24/7 Penguins/Capitals: The Road to the NHL Winter Classic.” When the Penguins held their monthly shootout contest – in which the last man left must grow a mustache – he was ready.

“Luckily, I got by that,” Neal said. “Kunitz ended up losing. That was funny.”

THIRD PERIOD

The consensus is that the Stars gave up too much for Goligoski, but the trade might not be as lopsided as it seems.

The Stars gained about $2 million in cap space that they might be able to use to re-sign Brad Richards(notes) if they settle their ownership situation before July 1. Neal is a finisher who relies on others to set him up; Goligoski is a puck-mover who makes others better, a valuable commodity in the new NHL of skill and speed. And Goligoski might be a better player than people realize.

“I just think both teams had a need,” Nieuwendyk said. “The strength of our team has been at the forward position. The strength of their team has been their blue line and their forward position. We really targeted a guy like Alex Goligoski and know he’s going to be a good player for us for a number of years.”

In Pittsburgh, Goligoski was stuck behind Kris Letang(notes), who has broken out this season with 46 points, tied for fifth-most among NHL defensemen. Goligoski has 34 points, same as two other up-and-coming young defensemen: the Los Angeles KingsDrew Doughty(notes) and the St. Louis BluesAlex Pietrangelo(notes).

With more top-pair and power play time, Goligoski thinks he can do what Letang has done.

“I definitely think I’m capable of having a season like that,” Goligoski said.

So does his new defense partner in Dallas, Stephane Robidas(notes).

“He’s a special player,” Robidas said. “He reminds me a little bit of (Sergei) Zubov, the way he moves the puck, the way he slows down the game, the way he sees the ice. He’s got great speed, too. He’s only 25 years old. I think he’s just going to get better.”

OVERTIME

While watching the Pens-Leafs game Wednesday night – in which Crosby was conspicuously absent because of his concussion – I was struck by a video montage during one stoppage in play. The Leafs showed a highlight reel of heavyweight hockey fights, Leafs pugilists pummeling opponents, over and over and over, set to hard rock and the words “GO LEAFS GO.”

The crowd roared, and I didn’t mind. I’m not anti-fighting. But I paused to think, as I do much more often now. And after the game, as I waited for players to emerge for interviews in the Leafs’ dressing room, I checked my BlackBerry and learned that former NHL enforcer Bob Probert had been diagnosed posthumously with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that leads to dementia.

Probert died of a heart attack last year at age 45, and his brain was donated to Boston University researchers who had found the dark, telltale tau protein that signals CTE in the brains of former NFL player and one former NHL player, Reggie Fleming, who died in 2009 at age 73 after suffering behavioral and cognitive problems.

Dr. Robert Cantu, co-director of the Center of the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at BU, told the Globe and Mail that Probert’s results were “not nearly as severe as we’ve seen in a number of other athletes in other sports like boxing or football, but nonetheless it’s unequivocally there.” He told the New York Times that we don’t really know how much of the damage was due to fighting and how much was due to hockey. But like he said before, nonetheless it’s unequivocally there.

And it’s just another reason to question how we view fighting, head shots, concussions and what to do about them. The NHL’s general managers will meet this month to discuss the new rule banning blindside hits to the head and return-to-play protocol for concussions. Ten other pro hockey players have pledged to donate their brains to research. There is no quick fix, no quick answer. But the problem is as plain as the tau protein the researchers found in Probert’s brain.

SHOOTOUT

Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland looks like a genius for signing goaltender Jimmy Howard(notes) to an extension with a $2.25 million cap hit just before the San Jose Sharks signed Antti Niemi(notes) to one with a $3.8 million cap hit. By convincing players to fit his salary structure, Holland has been able to keep his roster deeper than almost any other in the league. That said, Howard still received enough of a raise from the $717,667 he is making this year that Holland might have to trim a player next season.

• The Blues felt they could trade 22-year-old Erik Johnson(notes), the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 NHL draft, because they had another young, talented, right-handed defenseman in the 21-year-old Pietrangelo, the fourth overall pick in the 2008 draft. Pietrangelo’s numbers (34 points, plus-11) are far better than Johnson’s (23 points, minus-7). Nabbing 23-year-old winger Chris Stewart(notes) and 22-year-old defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk(notes) for Johnson looks like it could be a great move.

• Leafs goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere(notes), a pending unrestricted free agent, needs to solve his groin problems by seeing a specialist and possibly having surgery in the offseason. But he’s only 33 and wants to play as long as he can. “I’ll take whatever this league is willing to give me,” Giguere said. “If the league gives me another two (years), I’ll take two. If it’s one, I’ll take one. … There are goals I’d like to achieve as far as wins and games and stuff like that, so hopefully I will have that opportunity to play.” Giguere declined to reveal those goals. For the record, he has played 521 games and won 231.

• A smirking TV broadcaster asked Wilson if the Leafs could play airtight hockey the way they are currently constructed. Wilson just laughed. “Airtight,” he said. “That’s bad. That’s really bad. No, we’re not at that level yet.” Wilson did point to the Leafs’ victories at Boston and Buffalo in mid-February, in which they allowed only nine scoring chances in two games. He said they were the best back-to-back games in which he had ever been involved. “We can do it, but not as consistently as I’d like,” Wilson said.

@cotsonika tweet of the week: “Sign at ACC: ‘GET WELL NOOS #87.’ The ‘SOON’ was upside down.”

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