Phil Kessel got an early start on his disappearing act against the Boston Bruins on Monday.
The usual large mob of media types stood in a semi-circle in the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room after sending a request through the team’s media-relations staff for the reluctant star to discuss his least favourite NHL team.
After a half-hour, word came down that once again, Kessel would not be talking.
Now, it is easy to say the inarticulate winger lets his game do his talking – but this is hardly the case against the Bruins, who have owned the Leafs since they traded Kessel to Toronto in September of 2009. Kessel may be the Leafs’ leading scorer again this season (20 goals, 52 points), but he registered zeros in four games against the Bruins. In the 22 games Kessel, 25, played against his former team since the infamous trade, he has three goals and nine points and is a minus-22.
The Bruins may have spent the last few weeks of the regular season stumbling as badly as the Leafs, but in their last 37 games against Toronto, the Bruins are 25-6-6. Those numbers offer no comfort to Leafs fans, with Toronto’s first playoff series in nine years starting in Boston on Wednesday.
If the Leafs are to finally wrestle the Bruins demon to the ice, they need Kessel to finally wrestle his Bruins demon to the ice – in this case Zdeno Chara, the enormous defenceman who always shadows him. Kessel’s great reluctance to play in Boston is obvious all the way up to the press box in the TD Garden rafters.
That is why that large group of reporters was standing around the Leafs dressing room for so long Monday.
Kessel never has anything to say on the rare occasions he is pushed in front of the media. But just this once he needed to show up, even for a minute, and say something like: Yes, there is nothing I would like better than to step up and lead the way past the Bruins by getting the better of Chara for once.
Instead, he once again left his teammates to do the talking.
“I know he wants to have a statement series,” said Nazem Kadri, who may or may not be the centre on the Leafs’ No. 1 line between Kessel and James van Riemsdyk for Game 1 of the Bruins series. That will depend on the health of Tyler Bozak, who is thought to have a shoulder injury.
While head coach Randy Carlyle described Bozak as “day-to-day,” general manager David Nonis said he expects Bozak to play.
Nonis was also more equivocal on Kessel’s silence with the media. “We’ll deal with it internally,” he said. “The players will be available [in the future].”
Both Nonis and Carlyle stressed the best-of-seven series should not be about Kessel, and it was obvious this was discussed with the players as well.
“At the end of the day, he’s just one piece of our team,” said winger Joffrey Lupul, who noted Kessel was one of the team’s hottest players as the regular season ended. “He’s going to get a lot of the attention from fans and media and probably even their team, but it’s not a one-man team.
“If they really concentrate on taking Phil out of the game, other guys have to step up, and it’s not fair to rely on one guy or put the pressure on him.”
For Kessel to break free of Chara and the Bruins jinx, Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf, who has shadowed a star or two in his time, says he needs to use the one gift he has in abundance.
“He’s just has to move his feet,” he said. “And especially with the speed he has, he has to use his speed to his advantage. Obviously, when you’re defending guys, when [they are] moving [their] feet, it’s tougher to defend.”
Winning this series may not be solely about one player, but Kessel stands as a symbol of the Leafs’ futility against the Bruins in recent years. And Carlyle may have said he will leave the judgment of individual players to others, but “we are here to perform.”