Maybe Phil Kessel should speak his mind more often.
A day after the Toronto Maple Leafs winger let his frustrations boil over into some controversial comments at practice, his team battled from behind to beat a fragile Atlanta Thrashers club 5-4 at the Air Canada Centre on Monday.
Despite the fact it was a goal- and penalty-filled affair, Kessel didn’t find the scoresheet, but finished the game at plus-2 and was bumped up to the team’s top line with Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin from the start of the second period on.
The game started out ugly for Toronto, with the Leafs spending almost 11 minutes of the first period in the box and trailing 2-0 after the Thrashers’ Evander Kane and Dustin Byfuglien scored power play goals.
That’s when Leafs coach Ron Wilson threw out his line combinations in favour of new ones, including Kessel’s promotion a day after his comments over being shuffled to a unit with Darryl Boyce and Joey Crabb.
Captain Dion Phaneuf scored his second of the season and Grabovski added his 22nd to tie the game at two early in the second before Thrashers winger Nik Antropov – a former long-time Leaf – and Toronto winger Clarke MacArthur traded goals to make it 3-3.
In the third, Kulemin and Tim Brent added two more quick goals to give the Leafs a two-goal lead with 10 minutes to play. Atlanta chipped away at the deficit with a goal by captain Andrew Ladd, but couldn’t complete the comeback.
The loss dropped the Thrashers to 2-7-4 in their last 13 games, leaving them out of playoff position in the Eastern Conference.
Kessel’s love in
After creating a furor on Sunday by remarking that he and Wilson weren’t speaking, Kessel attempted to quiet the storm after the morning skate on Monday, saying he had no issues with his coach or any intention of leaving Toronto.
“I love Toronto, I want to be here,” Kessel said. “I love the city, I love the fans, I love the team. The guys are great here. I don’t want any trade or anything like that. I want to be here for a very long time.
“Obviously I’m frustrated. The way it’s going right now, we’re not winning, I need to be better out there. I’ve had opportunities, I need to score, so obviously I’m frustrated, right? But in no sense did I ever mean I wanted a trade.”
Kessel had a lengthy chat with Wilson and cleared the air with his teammates before the morning skate.
Wilson’s line blender
In an interesting quirk after Sunday’s controversy, Wilson began to run Kessel out on a line with Grabovski and Kulemin, a trio that hasn’t played together much this season.
With the Leafs down 2-0 after a penalty-filled first period, Wilson shifted Kessel up to the team’s top line and it began to pay dividends.
Grabovski, meanwhile, was the Leafs’ best player on the night, getting a breakaway late in the first period and then scoring his 22nd of the season – tying him for 15th in the NHL goal scoring race – early in the second.
Even though it means breaking up the only line that has produced goals this season, getting Kessel more minutes with Grabovski may be the way to get him going.
Burke weighs in
Leafs general manager Brian Burke added to the night’s intrigue by speaking briefly with reporters in the press box during the first intermission, addressing concerns over Kessel’s comments.
Burke said for starters that he’s not disappointed in Kessel’s play.
“The reason Phil hasn't put up the numbers can't just be put on his back,” Burke said. “It's a failure of team personnel. No, I’m not disappointed in Phil.
“I don’t know what you guys have been watching, but he’s been dangerous every night. If he wasn’t getting scoring chances or he wasn’t working, I would be a lot more concerned.”
Burke acknowledged that Kessel may need better linemates to get the job done.
“We might not have all of the pieces on the chessboard,” he said.