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Toronto Maple Leafs Phil Kessel (L), celebrates a goal against the Florida Panthers during first period NHL hockey action in Sunrise, Florida November 27, 2009. REUTERS/Hans Deryk (HANS DERYK)
Toronto Maple Leafs Phil Kessel (L), celebrates a goal against the Florida Panthers during first period NHL hockey action in Sunrise, Florida November 27, 2009. REUTERS/Hans Deryk (HANS DERYK)

Hard feelings between Kessel and Bruins Add to ...

Both sides are telling different stories about how Phil Kessel became a Toronto Maple Leaf and both are trying to say his return to Boston for the first time since he was traded by the Bruins is no big deal.

But there is no arguing that there is an undercurrent of hard feelings running through the preparations for tonight's game between the Maple Leafs and the Bruins.

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In Boston, Kessel tried to dismiss the game "as only a little different than a normal game." Later, though, he said he found the conservative, defensive game practised by Bruins head coach Claude Julien "a little restrictive" and that Leafs head coach Ron Wilson allows him to play his own game, shedding light on Kessel's relationship with his former head coach.

Julien, in Montreal with the Bruins for last night's game against the Canadiens, let his feelings slip when he grew a bit short with a reporter who asked about Kessel. The coach had already groused that the Canadiens' 100th anniversary celebrations pushed back the start of last night's game so late it would further hurt his team because the Leafs were sitting in their hotel in Boston waiting for the Bruins, who have to play back-to-back games on the road and at home.

"As far as we're concerned that book is closed and we've moved on to other things," Julien said of Kessel. "We're way more worried about our own performance and what we do than anything or anyone else."

Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli, who sharply disagrees with Kessel's camp about whether the forward demanded a trade after contract negotiations stalled (Chiarelli insists he did), said he wants to beat the Leafs but not because of Kessel. He received two first-round draft picks plus a second-rounder in the September trade, so each Leaf loss makes the 2010 first-round pick a little more valuable.

One thing everybody can agree on is how Kessel, 22, will be greeted by the Boston fans. The fans don't care who said what when it came to Kessel leaving Boston after a 36-goal season, they took it as a slap in the face.

"I'll probably get booed," said Kessel, who added with a shrug that it was just part of playing hockey.

Kessel's former teammates agreed.

"Oh, probably a few boos," Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas said. "Hell, they boo us when we deserve it."

Kessel was taken fifth overall out of the University of Minnesota by the Bruins in the 2006 entry draft. He played three seasons in Boston but never seemed comfortable in Julien's defensive system.

Julien benched Kessel for part of the 2008 playoffs and even though he came back for a breakthrough season in 2008-09 with 36 goals, there was always the feeling that the relationship between coach and player was not bound to last.

"I think they went in a different direction," Kessel said of the Bruins. "In the end, it didn't work out. I never asked for a trade.

"I'm happy where I am and I'm getting more [playing]minutes, too." Kessel quickly showed he could score goals without Marc Savard, his old centre in Boston with whom he remains close friends. He has now settled in at right wing with centre Matt Stajan and left wing Alexei Ponikarovsky.

The reason he is happy, Kessel said, is that Wilson lets him play an offensive game. Kessel responded with 10 goals in 15 games since he recovered from shoulder surgery, which went a long way to sparking a Leaf resurgence in the last two weeks and lowered the volume on all the screaming about how next year's draft pick could be a first pick overall.

Wilson said when he gets a player with Kessel's speed and skill with the stick, the last thing he thinks about is making him check someone.

"I'm not going to handcuff Phil," Wilson said. "I've always had success with guys of that ilk. I've had a lot of 50-goal scorers or made 50-goal scorers out of people.

"You can't ask everybody to be checkers and shot blockers and penalty killers. You have to give people like Phil a little more freedom because of the unbelievable skill set he has. He does things nobody else on our team can come close to doing. Why would I harness that and kill that spirit he has?"

Wilson said it is no accident that once Kessel hit his stride after coming back from a long rehabilitation period for his shoulder that the Leafs' scoring woes finally lessened in the last week or so.

"All of a sudden, when you let a guy like that do some stuff and you get a little return, you say, 'Come on, Phil, you've got to back-check a little harder,' which he's been doing," Wilson said. "And then all of a sudden you see other guys start to be a little more creative.

"That's why I think we're starting to score. We're feeding off the little things Phil does."

With a report from Sean Gordon

Follow on Twitter: @dshoalts

 

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