May 1, 2013

Will Phil Kessel finally flip the script against the Bruins?

By Jesse Connolly

Phil Kessel and the Leafs have won just one of their last 10 games against Boston. (Getty Images)

There are few storylines in hockey as predictable as the one in store each and every time Phil Kessel returns to the city where his pro hockey career began.

No. 81 will be warmly welcomed with a smattering of boos the first time he corrals the puck with his stick. Zdeno Chara will take on the task of shutting Kessel down for most of the night and will blot out the spotlight shining down on the Leafs’ leading scorer with his massive, 6-foot-9 frame.

Inevitably, Boston will get a contribution from Tyler Seguin or Dougie Hamilton, two of the players the draft picks the Bruins received in the deal that sent Kessel to Toronto were used on. The 17,565 on hand will collectively break out the “Thank you, Kessel” chant, carrying it on until the conclusion of what in all likelihood will be yet another win for the Bruins against the ever-so-slightly-less hated of their Canadian, Original Six foes.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Like clockwork, with the most minimal of exceptions, the script has played out with nearly flawless execution for almost four calendar years now.

Given his tremendous talent and the wealth of success he’s had against the other 28 teams in the NHL, it’s unrealistic to expect Chara and Co. to keep shutting Kessel down for the rest of his career.

Game 1 of the conference quarterfinal showdown between the Leafs and B’s will be Kessel’s 23rd game against the Black and Gold. During the four miserable season series against the club that drafted him fifth overall in 2006, the two-time NHL All Star has scored just three goals and sports a nearly-incomprehensibly bad minus-22 rating against Boston.

Eventually the tide has to turn for the former University of Minnesota standout, doesn’t it? If you’re Kessel, could you think of a better time than now for that to happen?

Think about the opportunity that lies ahead for the kid we used to call “The Thrill.”

Media microscope

I have to imagine that being around the Toronto media is akin to being a plane-crash survivor in the movie “Alive.” Everyone tries to remain upbeat at first, but when things fail to change for the better, grouchiness sets in and eventually no one left standing is all that reluctant to cannibalize you. Worst of all, there’s no Ethan Hawke around to lead everyone to salvation.

While there are emerging pieces around him – Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kardi serve as shining examples – Kessel is unquestionably the “face of the franchise” for the Leafs. As a handsomely-paid, dynamic goal-scorer, that’s to be expected. One would think three-straight seasons of 30-plus goals, followed by arguably his greatest year yet with 52 points during the 48-game, lockout-shortened season, would give Kessel a reprieve.

But in a hockey-hungry city like Toronto, there are no reprieves.

These animals would love to pin a series loss to Boston in the Leafs’ first trip to the postseason since 2004 directly on Kessel, who’s about as helpful with the whole “Hey, I know you want to write a gripping story, so I’ve prepared immeasurably entertaining and insightful answers for you” thing as I would be if you asked me to rebuild your car’s transmission (or open your trunk from inside the car, depending on the model, if I’m going to be honest).

If Kessel could knock off the Bruins, the 2011 Cup champs, maybe the horde of writers in Toronto would ease up on him a bit. If he takes them further, who knows? Doug Gilmour-level of adoration could be just around the corner. Playoff heroics go a long way.

For the bosses in Boston

Claude Julien has openly criticized an incredibly short list of players in front of the media during his tenure as coach of the Boston Bruins. When he does -- aside from a bizarre decision to throw Dennis Wideman under the bus in 2009-10 and stir up the fan hatred that still exists for him today -- it’s usually a slightly-underachieving youngster that gets some public critiquing. Tyler Seguin dealt with it during his rookie season, but no one heard his name mentioned in a negative light -- as far as my memory insists, at least -- more than Kessel, whether for playing soft or not resembling Jiri Lehtinen on the back-check.

Julien benched Kessel for Games 2-4 of their first-round series in 2008 against the Canadiens, despite the fact the then-second-year pro assisted on Boston’s lone goal in a 4-1 loss up in Montreal in Game 1. When the fleet-footed winger returned, he almost singlehandedly helped the Bruins tie the series, scoring once in Game 5 and then twice in an unforgettable, 5-4 victory at TD Garden. While that series sparked the Bruins’ resurgence in this town, making it a moral victory of sorts, one can’t help but wonder what might’ve been had Kessel’s time in the press box been shorter.

Then, for some reason, even after breaking out with a 36-goal season in 2008-09 and then leading the B’s with six goals in the playoffs, it always felt like Julien and GM Peter Chiarelli never really fully warmed up to hitching their wagons to a “flashy” forward like Phil. Big Bad Bruins. Mean, tough, heavy hockey. Blah, blah, blah.

To be fair, no one knows how unwilling to return Kessel might’ve been nor how unreasonable he was in contract negotations. And, while Chiarelli got lucky with the Leafs being so woefully bad for a few seasons there, the Bruins have gotten the better of the deal thus far, with cornerstones like Seguin and Hamilton to build around and, oh yeah, that championship banner that now hangs in the rafters.

Kessel’s futility against his old club is well-documented, but in the playoffs, the stakes are much bigger than they ever have been in this saga. Say what you will about Kessel’s shortcomings as a player, whether strictly as a Bruin or in taking a look at his entire body of work. The fact remains that No. 81 proved during his two trips to the postseason with the B’s that he’s more than capable of elevating his game when on the big stage, in big games and at big moments.

All these years later, Kessel has bigger fish to fry than “sticking it” to his old team. However, I bet sending them a friendly reminder – at long last – of what he’s capable of would still feel pretty good.

When the dust settles

There are a number of ways this series could play out for Kessel and the Maple Leafs. There’s a chance that Toronto could manage to overcome continued struggles for Kessel against Boston and knock off the Bruins, who backed into the playoffs with a 2-5-2 record over their final nine regular-season games.

Or maybe this matchup proves to be just what the doctor ordered for a B’s team that limped to the finish line. Boston’s won nine of their last ten showdowns with the Leafs, holding Kessel without a goal in all but one of those affairs.

But how long can that continue? How long can one of the game’s best goal-scorers and pure talents be such an underperformer against one single team?

Remember when Susan Lucci couldn’t win a Daytime Emmy if her life depended on it? Remember when Mariano Rivera stepping onto the mound for the Yankees spelled guaranteed doom for the Red Sox? Remember when Kris Kross was cool and people actually wore their pants backwards?

Ultimately, at one point or another, most trends have to come to an end. Phil Kessel’s just 25 years old. Barring a career-threatening injury, there’s no way he can continue to be a flop against his old employer forever.

Will he begin to take the steps toward eradicating that futility tonight? No matter which side of this rivalry you find yourself on, your brain, your heart, your gut and whatever other personified body parts you turn to for advice – hey, to each his own – are probably telling you the same thing: forget about it.

But one of these days, No. 81 is going to flip the script. With the weight of a hockey-mad, provincial capital – one that hasn’t seen its team reach the playoffs in nine years and hasn’t raised a Stanley Cup banner in 46 years – on his shoulders, one final summer to go before a contract year, a horde of critics to silence in Toronto, Boston and beyond, and the whole hockey universe looking on, now would be as great a time as any for Kessel to finally bring his “A” game against the B’s.

Maybe then he’ll get a long-awaited “thank you” from Leafs fans, too. 

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ