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Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel (81) celebrates an empty-net goal against the New York Islanders with teammate Joffrey Lupul (19) in the third period of their NHL hockey game on Friday, Dec. 23, 2011, at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, NY. Kessel and Lupul will join Toronto Maple Leafs teammate Dion Phaneuf in enemy territory at the NHL all-star game. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-John Dunn (John Dunn/CP/AP)
Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel (81) celebrates an empty-net goal against the New York Islanders with teammate Joffrey Lupul (19) in the third period of their NHL hockey game on Friday, Dec. 23, 2011, at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, NY. Kessel and Lupul will join Toronto Maple Leafs teammate Dion Phaneuf in enemy territory at the NHL all-star game. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-John Dunn (John Dunn/CP/AP)

Maple Leafs big duo search for answers Add to ...

As he peeled off his socks and shin pads in the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room, Phil Kessel looked as frustrated as he has all season on Saturday night.

And in a rare postgame conversation with a few gathered media after the Leafs’ 3-0 loss to the New York Rangers, the team’s leading scorer could offer only “I don’t knows” as explanation for a third consecutive night held off the scoresheet.

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“I don’t really know what to say,” Kessel said. “It wasn’t a good one. It was a little frustrating tonight. They played well. We didn’t have anything really going so…”

He trailed off, his gaze fixed on the floor.

“I don’t know what else to say.”

It was one of those nights for Kessel – and the type the Leafs hope don’t become a regular thing.

This is a team, after all, that has essentially outscored a lot of its issues in goal and in its own end this season, with its dynamic duo of Kessel and Joffrey Lupul providing nearly one-third of their goal production.

More and more, however, opposing teams have been keying on that pair, something the Rangers did to great effect Saturday by using checkers Brian Boyle, Brandon Prust, Carl Hagelin and Ruslan Fedotenko on them at all times.

They were physical, and they took away their time and space – something sure to be a constant in the second half as teams examine what’s worked for the Leafs and the push to make the playoffs in the East gets tighter.

By the final buzzer, neither Kessel or Lupul had a shot on goal. Kessel had two attempts blocked, hit a post and missed the net. Lupul had none of the above. Both were minus-2.

And centre Tim Connolly? He won one faceoff all night.

Boyle noted afterwards he could tell they had successfully frustrated Toronto’s top guns.

“You see their body language,” he said. “That’s our job.”

“Our line has not been good for a couple games now,” Kessel admitted. “We’re going to figure it out, I guess. You try not to [have stretches like this] But right now, we’re not very good.”

Offensively, this season has been a dream for Kessel, who didn’t have many peaks or valleys en route to putting up 48 points in the season’s first half.

After 41 games, he had been held pointless only eight times and never two games in a row – remarkable consistency for a player often (and, at times, unfairly) branded streaky in previous seasons.

Now three games without a point is only three games. The vast majority of the players in the league go three games without a point all the time.

(Leafs farmhand Philippe Dupuis even found a way to do it 10 times in a row earlier this year before being punted to the minors.)

But what Leafs coach Ron Wilson has to try and avoid is a situation where not producing points gets to Kessel and Lupul and puts them off their game even more.

It was predictable that the second 41 games of 2011-12 were going to be harder than the first for these two. It would be hard for them not to be.

Both scored on 16 per cent of their shots on goal – well above their career norms of 11 per cent – and both were on pace to better their career highs by 30-plus points at the halfway point.

And how far they come back to earth will be a big part of the tale of the Leafs’ second half.

Toronto is in the playoff hunt by no convincing margin at this point, hanging on in ninth with a push from the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals set to only to increase the pace. If it’ll take 93 points to get in, as it did last season in the Eastern Conference, the Leafs need a 22-16-0 finish to get there.

And it may even take more.

To do that, they’ll need Kessel and Lupul to come up with better answers for the tight checking they’re sure to see the rest of the way.

On Saturday, they didn’t have any – and the Leafs didn’t have a hope.

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