Everyone in the building knew it was coming.
Jean-Sébastien Giguère talked openly about being ready for it before the game. Phil Kessel’s teammates noted how they wanted to get him the puck to make it possible.
And the Air Canada Centre crowd went wild every time he did, even when he appeared well out of scoring position.
Somehow, however, even with all eyes on him and the opposition doing everything it could to stop him, Kessel found a way to dipsy-doodle through the neutral zone and flick a seeing-eye wrist shot past Giguère for the opening goal in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 3-2 loss on Monday.
While for many players there wouldn’t have been a chance, Kessel found the back of the net in an instant.
The goal was Kessel’s sixth in four games to open the year, putting him into the NHL scoring lead, and it looked remarkably like so many others.
He has scored 104 goals – tied for 10th most – dating back to and including his break-out 36-goal season as a 21-year-old in 2008-09 with the Boston Bruins.
Of those ahead of him, all but Sidney Crosby are taller and more physically imposing than Kessel, who at 6-foot, 200 pounds is just under the size of an average NHL forward.
The others, including big men like Rick Nash and Corey Perry, generate their goals in a variety of ways, including crashing the net, picking a corner or banging in a one-timer.
Kessel, meanwhile, has his one trick and does it really, really well.
It’s that flick of a wrist.
Linemate Tyler Bozak compares what Kessel does to a golfer. And one in particular.
“It’s not the biggest guys that are going to hit it the farthest,” Bozak said. “You look at Bubba Watson and he’s got a different style of swing than everyone else and he hits it farther than everyone else. And he’s a skinny guy.
“Phil just has that. I don’t know how he does it honestly. I can’t shoot like that. You can’t duplicate something like that.”
It is, in other words, a natural talent, not an acquired one and it’s hard to explain. It’s also why Kessel has been scoring the same way since he was getting a goal a game as a teenager.
But what exactly is Kessel doing with that unique ability? If it’s not brute strength, is it his aim?
“He just has such a quick release,” teammate Matt Frattin said. “He catches the goalie off guard. Like Giguère. A nice little quick snapper from the slot.”
“He just does it in stride,” linemate Joffrey Lupul added. “He doesn’t stop and give the goalie a chance to set. I try to do it – I’m not obviously as good as Phil. A lot of guys can’t really do it at all.”
The other key is Kessel looks for a way to simply get his shots past defenders rather than picking a corner of the net. Often – like on Monday – he scores with a body or two in front of him and finds a way to get the shot through.
“Whatever lane the defenceman gives him, that’s where he’s shooting,” Lupul said.
The shot total
When Kessel talks about a particular hot or cold streak, it’s never about how he’s shooting the puck – which really doesn’t change.
It’s about getting chances. And getting a lot of them.
“In most games, he gets the most shots out of any guy,” Bozak said.
Kessel generates just under four shots on goal a game, which puts him among the league leaders every season, but he really only scores on 10 to 12 per cent of them. Those shot totals, however, are what he considers vital to producing a lot of goals, more than where they come from.
That’s why Kessel is fond of saying – “they’re just going in” – when he’s on a roll like he is right now.
Frattin said when he asked Kessel for advice on getting his first NHL goal, it was all centred on putting as many “pucks on the net” as possible.
“A goalie makes mistakes, too,” Frattin said of the philosophy. “They’re human beings. Just catch them off guard and they might make that one mistake for you.”
As for where Kessel likes to shoot from, his centreman says he isn’t picky.
“Everywhere,” Bozak said.