The Toronto Maple Leafs are one of the few Eastern Conference teams that have feasted on the Western Conference this season, so it should come as no surprise that their resident sniper has done the same.
There are times when Phil Kessel is brilliant, others when he’s not so much. But with his team trailing 2-0 to the Anaheim Ducks and staring down the barrel of a three-game losing streak, Kessel delivered a tour-de-force performance, scoring three times to almost singlehandedly lift his team to a 4-2 win. The victory gave the Leafs a 4-2-0 record against Western Conference teams this season, making them just one of three teams in the conference to have a record better than .500 against the west. (Tampa Bay, at 3-0-0, and Pittsburgh at 2-1-0, are the others.)
The east has struggled against the west in the early part of the season, compiling a 23-34-8 mark after games Tuesday night, but thanks to Kessel and the Washington Capitals snipers, the east managed to battle the west to a 2-2-2 mark on the night.
Kessel has been criticized in the past for not being able to deliver offense when his team really needs it, but he has become much better in that area of the game, particularly in the past two years. And Tuesday night against the Ducks was no exception with Kessel scoring the goal that got the Leafs back into the game, the game-winner and the insurance goal. The first one delivered a blow to the Ducks, the second knocked them down and the third was the killing blow.
And like his team, Kessel has delivered big-time against western teams this season. In the six games the Leafs have played, Kessel has scored four goals and eight points, compared to his 1-2-3 totals in four games against Eastern Conference teams. And not only were Kessel’s goals crucial, they rated high in artistic merit. On the game winner, the Leafs took advantage of a Ducks turnover and Kessel went to work, using James van Riemsdyk as a foil before delivering the puck through the smallest of gaps and roofing it into the net.
“Those are serious goal-scorer goals,” said teammate Dion Phaneuf. “He didn’t have a lot of room on two out of the three and he found a way to put the puck in the net and that’s what he does. That’s why he’s one of the best players in the league.”
It’s not as though Kessel had to impress anyone, but former NHL GM Don Waddell, who is scouting for Team USA, was on hand for the game. He acknowledged that Kessel is a lock for the U.S. Olympic team, but was looking closely at van Riemsdyk and Anaheim defenseman Cam Fowler. Two members of the Canadian brain trust, GM Steve Yzerman and consultant Peter Chiarelli, were also on hand, likely to take an extended look at Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry of the Ducks, two players who were off to good starts, but didn’t do much to enhance their Olympic prospects in the game.
What made Kessel’s performance all the more inspiring was that it basically brought the Leafs back from the dead in a game they had no business winning in the early going. The Leafs had just two shots in the first period and looked all but dead before scoring on the power play to get things started for them. From that point on, the Ducks stopped moving their feet and the Leafs pounced on their opportunities.
“That’s the fastest team we’ve played this year,” said Ducks’ defenseman Ben Lovejoy. “We had some turnovers and they made us pay. They’re deadly. They made us look stupid.”
The game was also Teemu Selanne’s farewell game in Toronto and while he had some good chances early, ended the night with just one shot and was minus-1. Like Lovejoy, he was not impressed by his team’s compete level.
“We were terrible,” Selanne said. “It’s OK to lose, but not like this. This is a bad taste. We’re just watching and the mistakes come and boom, boom, it’s over. And that’s how it should be. This league is tough and if you can’t do better than that, you’re not supposed to win.”