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Toronto Maple Leafs' Phil Kessel (FRED THORNHILL/REUTERS)
Toronto Maple Leafs' Phil Kessel (FRED THORNHILL/REUTERS)

Jeff Blair

Phil Kessel is diligent, but continues to struggle Add to ...

Let’s leave aside the whole debate about whether/why/when Phil Kessel will be traded. Fact is, there is nobody on the Toronto Maple Leafs good enough to be untouchable. There’s just varying degrees of availability.

And say this for Phil The Nil, still goalless after all these games: at least he plays like a guy who cares. Seriously, regardless of how much of a skeptic you are, it’s tough not to feel for him.

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Thursday night was more of the same: seven shots, lots of diligence, a quick wrist-shot that turns into an assist on a James van Riemsdyk goal – and another wrist shot that rings off the post so loudly it echoes around the Air Canada Centre, followed in the second period by a puck that flutters over Michal Neuvirth that Kessel swipes at once, twice – the second time as he’s falling down – without getting any joy.

Just like the first period, when he was all alone to Neuvirth’s right, only to have the Washington Capitals goaltender coolly drop to his knees. No goal. No rebound … nada.

Later, in the third period, Kessel and van Reimsdyk have a nifty little two-on-one set up – and the pass is too far. Nikolai Kulemin? He gets his first, all right, to tie the game. Goal for Kulemin; bupkis for Kessel. Somebody asked him if he ran over a black cat recently?

“I don’t know what I did, eh?” he said with a laugh, looking around.

Alexander Ovechkin, meanwhile, gets his second goal of the season after 23 mostly invisible minutes and does nothing to remove the thought that he needs a change of scenery. Yes, sometimes it really is that simple. New city, new team, new life.

The Leafs’ 3-2 win carried an Ovie vs. Phil sub-plot. Yes, that’s how far Ovechkin’s game has fallen; he’s no longer compared to Sidney Crosby. He’s compared to goalless, colourless Kessel, playing with ham-and-eggers Joey Crabb and Jay Beagle while his head coach, Adam Oates, talks about how Ovechkin “has to improve his game … keep thinking his position … is a work in progress.”

Yikes. The fact it was Ovechkin’s 24th goal in 28 games against the Leafs probably devalues its worth as a harbinger for Oates.

Meanwhile, in Toronto it might be time to light a candle for Kessel. Mr. Head-In-His-Hands after every line change, who on a first-period power play gestured dramatically to John-Michael Liles after Liles elected to shoot a prayer from the blueline with Kessel stationed to his left. Kessel shook his head and put his hand out as he skated away.

You’ll see that on a Saturday morning from The Premiership. Saturday nights? Not so much.

Kessel took a minor penalty for interference a minute later, ruining a 5-on-3 opportunity for the Leafs.

Yet through it all, the line of Kessel, van Reimsdyk and Tyler Bozak was a going concern from the opening faceoff. And it was set up for Kessel again late in the game. Another 2-on-1 and a snap shot that gets speared out of the air by Neuvirth, who ends up on his butt. A one-goal lead, the Capitals with Neuvirth on the bench for the extra attacker, net wide open, the puck turned over and Kessel just over the blueline with the net wide, wide open … only to bounce the puck wide.

“He’s playing an all-round game,” said Matt Frattin, who scored his fourth goal. “He’s taking the body hard on the fore-check. He’s getting opportunities. The time you have to switch things around is when you aren’t getting those opportunities.”

Used to be the Burkie Cam that provided mirth and merriment at the Air Canada Centre; a staple of any Leafs telecast that honed in on since-deposed general manager Brian Burke to capture his reaction to another Leafs calamity. Might be time to get the Kessel Cam set up. Honestly, it’s enough to make you want to cheer for the guy, not trade him.

Kessel needs a goal in the worst way. Any way. And who’s coming to town on Saturday? The Boston Bruins and Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton; the price the Leafs paid for Kessel. Talk about a setup.

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