BOSTON -- It has been nearly four years since Phil Kessel left Boston, bound for Toronto as the centerpiece of an epic, seemingly lopsided trade, and he would really prefer that people stop asking him about a chapter of his life and career that he wants to close.
To be fair, Kessel has never liked talking about himself, win or lose, but that is part of the drill, especially when you're a talented player with a decidedly mixed aura. Acquired to provide the Leafs with a major offensive threat and spark their return to the postseason for the first time since 2004, he became a focal point in their ongoing struggles, so the questions were sure to be waiting for him in Boston before Toronto's first playoff game in nine years. So were the doubts about him that he'd surely like to see vanish once and for all. But his disappearing act in the Leafs' clumsy 4-1 defeat in the opener only made matters worse.
Kessel managed one shot on goal and a takeaway -- but no blocks or hits -- in 13:51 on the ice. "You know, I think I missed a couple of them, or whatever," he said after the game, "but that's how it goes."
Not much of an effort. Not much of an answer, but Kessel wasn't the only culprit even if, as expected, he was a lightning rod for derision from the Bruins' faithful.
"I thought we self-destructed," said Leafs coach Randy Carlyle.
Kessel knew he was going to get booed whenever he touched the puck. It's happened every time he's gone back the TD Garden, and during the third period, the fans began to chant "Keh-sell, Keh-sell" while he was sitting on the bench. The Bruins' eloquent chirper, Brad Marchand, also had some choice words for Kessel after a scrum. Leave it to Marchand to remind an opponent of his shortcomings.
"We were just having a friendly little chat," Boston's notorious pest said later.
Naturally, Kessel didn't care for the questions about his return to Boston. Before Game 1, he left his teammates to answer queries about the series -- the first postseason meeting between the two Original Six franchises since 1974 -- in which he was going to be at center stage. When told of Kessel's snub, Leafs GM Dave Nonis apologized and insisted it would not happen again.
"I didn't think it was that big of a deal," Kessel said the next day. "You guys didn't want to talk to me that much during the year and then you need me yesterday? I think you guys made a bigger deal about it than it is."
When asked about his return to the building where he started his career, Kessel snapped: "It's been four years now."
"I can count," one of the reporters responded, at which point Kessel turned to her and squawked back, "Can you?"
He insisted that his return was merely "another game," with no added impetus or pressure. The numbers don't back him up. In his 23 career games against the Bruins, including that playoff opener, he had scored just three goals, all on the power play, and was -22 compared to -14 against the rest of the league.
Kessel's three years in Boston were a mixed bag. The Bruins chose him with their first pick, fifth overall, in the 2006 draft. They also chose Milan Lucic at No. 50 and Marchand at No. 71 that year. In his third season, Kessel blossomed and scored 36 goals, but he was known to be rather aloof with people and an uneasy fit with some teammates. Before the 2009-10 season, the Bruins traded him to Toronto for a first- and second-round pick in 2010 and a 2011 first-rounder.
With a new five-year, $27 million contract and burdened by Toronto's great expectations, Kessel scored 30 goals during his first season as a Leaf, but the team failed to make the playoffs. To the lasting horror of many in Hogtown, the 2010 first-rounder in the trade turned out to be the second overall pick, which the Bruins used to take center Tyler Seguin, who became an immediate contributor on Boston's Stanley Cup team and a 29-goal scorer the following season. Kessel continued to be a 30-goal man, but when the Leafs again hit the golf course at the end of the 2010-11 regular schedule, the trade became the gift that kept on giving. Boston used the other first-rounder it received to take highly-touted defenseman Dougie Hamilton ninth overall.
Unable to lift the Leafs out of mediocrity, Kessel became dogged by indignity. When the NHL tried to spice up its All-Star format by having captains choose sides playground-style for the annual game in 2011, they inadvertently embarrassed Kessel, leaving him red-faced as the last player chosen. The league altered the drafting format the next season, so the final six players would be divided up at random to avoid singling out another Kessel. And in February 2012, an SI poll of 145 NHL players cited him as the easiest player in the league to intimidate. Brian Burke, then the Leafs' GM, strongly defended his sniper, questioning the nature of the poll. But Toronto's struggles and Boston's success only made Kessel more of a target. It was a dash of bitter irony that his line ended up matched against Seguin's in Game 1.
Kessel should be an easy guy to like. He survived testicular cancer in 2006 and won the Masterton Trophy in 2007 for his perseverance and dedication to the game, the first rookie to win the award. He's represented the U.S. eight times in international tournaments while amassing an impressive 64 points in 53 games at the Olympics, world championships, world juniors and under-18 worlds.
Perhaps because of his reserved nature, he has taken more heat than he deserves. To be fair, he wasn't the only Leaf to struggle in Game 1. Joffrey Lupul and Nazem Kadri, two of Toronto's key players during the season, didn't show much, and goalie James Reimer let in a couple of goals he should have stopped. But Kessel was the one who had to answer the questions and silence the doubters with his play. It appears that he has started to find a way.
Throughout Game 2, Leafs coach Randy Carlyle played a game of mix and match, taking Kessel off his usual line pairing of Lupul and Tyler Bozak and replacing him periodically with Matt Frattin. The move, which kept Kessel away from Boston's towering shutdown defenseman Zdeno Chara, paid off as Toronto evened the series with a 4-2 win.
"Some things we did did work for a while," said Carlyle. "They have home ice and last change. They're pretty good at getting Chara on and off the ice. They've done this before. Really this is the first time that we've really went as hard at that tonight, per se."
In all, Kessel played 17:13, which is not an unusual amount of ice time for him, but he spread it over 30 shifts, more than any forward for either team, an indication that he had a couple of short stops out there as Carlyle moved him on and off the ice.
Less than a minute into the third period, with the Leafs up 2-1, Kessel hopped over the boards with Nazem Kadri and Ryan Hamilton seconds after Chara went to the bench with his partner Adam McQuaid. Taking a lead pass from Kadri, Kessel sped up the ice on a breakaway that produced his first even-strength goal against his former team. The tally was a perfect storm of circumstance.
First, the Bruins had to move things around with their defense pairings because Andrew Ference was suspended for the game. Dennis Seidenberg is Chara's usual partner, but without Ference in the lineup, Julien often played Chara with McQuaid, and Seidenberg with Johnny Boychuk in order to keep some balance in his pairings. It was Seidenberg who took the initial shot that Leafs blueliner Mark Fraser blocked. Hamilton tapped the loose puck to Kadri, who spotted Kessel turning up the ice ahead of Seidenberg, whose momentum still had him going forward, so he had to scramble to get back. A play like that is usually where an astute partner such as Chara would cover for Seidenberg against any outlet passes heading in the opposite direction.
"You have to watch out for him all the time," Seidenberg later said of Kessel. "He's a very sneaky player."
The goal was a weight off Kessel's shoulders, of course.
"Naz made a good pass," Kessel said after the game. "I was fortunate it went in. It was nice to get one. It's been a long time against these guys to score."
"I guess you guys don't have to ask about it so much," Kessel said.
Kessel will now have some things in his favor as the series shifts to Toronto. Expect the fans to ride Chara and the Bruins the way the Boston crowd went after Kessel, at least at the start. With the last change, Carlyle will have much more flexibility to do as he chooses with line pairings, making it easier for him to keep Kessel away from Chara. Still, the heat will always be on the sniper. Even home crowds, especially those ravenous for playoff success, can eat their own from time to time. Whether or not he is more comfortable in the spotlight now, the onus is still on Kessel, who knows this is no time to be a withered Leaf.