Fifty-three seconds into the third period, the moment Phil Kessel, the Toronto Maple Leafs and their fans were waiting almost four years to see finally happened.
It happened because Leafs coach Randy Carlyle spent almost every minute leading up to it frantically shuffling his lines and yanking Kessel on and off the ice to get him away from his nemesis, Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara. He couldn’t do it every shift, but Carlyle managed it just enough to make a difference, thanks to a few other Leafs, notably Joffrey Lupul, Matt Frattin and finally James van Riemsdyk, who scored a spectacular goal late in the game to seal a 4-2 win for the Leafs and tie the NHL playoff series 1-1.
Frattin was used in Kessel’s place on the Leafs’ top line with centre Tyler Bozak and Lupul to get him away from Chara a little and that’s where he was when the puck was dropped to start the third period. Chara was out there, too, but when his shift ended, Kessel hopped over the boards.
Seconds later, Kessel was flying past Bruins defenceman Johnny Boychuk for a breakaway. He tucked the puck behind goaltender Tuukka Rask for his first even-strength goal against the Bruins since they traded him in September, 2009 for the first-round draft picks that became Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton.
That put the Leafs up by two and there was no derisive “Thank you Kessel” chant from the stunned 17,565 fans at the TD Garden. While it was a nice moment for Kessel, it wasn’t the be-all and end-all moment for the Leafs because the rest of them played well enough to make sure it wasn’t all about Kessel.
But make no mistake, Kessel’s goal meant the world to him and the Leafs. He was mobbed on the ice and on the Leafs bench his teammates madly high-fived each other. By the time he faced reporters, though, Kessel was back to his usual reticent self.
“I was happy, obviously,” he said. “It’s been a long time. It was fortunate to go in.”
Kessel said the strategy of switching constantly with Frattin was Carlyle’s idea and was introduced to the team on Thursday. But, he added, “there’s no secret” to getting the best of Chara. It is something that has to be the subject of hard work because Chara “is one of the best in the league every night.”
Indeed, Kessel’s goal didn’t really slay the Bruins, either. They came on strong over the last 10 minutes of the third period, and Chara had a hand in a goal by Johnny Boychuk that cut the Leafs’ lead to one. But van Riemsdyk was there with his highlight-reel goal to make sure the night belonged to the Leafs.
It also ensured Kessel’s goal became the game-winner, another nice bit of symbolism for the Leafs.
“Well, they were a much hungrier team and it showed,” Chara said. “We know we’ve got to be better. Nobody said it was going to be easy.”
The gamesmanship between Carlyle and his Bruins counterpart Claude Julien started from the opening faceoff when both Kessel and Chara were on the ice. No sooner had Kessel’s first shift ended than Carlyle sent him right back out because Chara was not on the ice. And so it went.
After a few minutes it became obvious Frattin was going to be Kessel’s decoy. He started taking Kessel’s shifts with Bozak and Lupul and then would switch with Kessel if there was no sign of Chara. Otherwise, Kessel would go with the next line.
Lupul said the constant switching meant the Leafs had to pay extra attention, although it was not difficult for him because it was confined to the right wing with Kessel and Frattin.
“You’ve got to be focused,” Lupul said. “For myself and Bozak, it didn’t matter. We were playing against whomever.
“It was just the right winger who was changing so it’s not that difficult for me. Whenever I was out, I wasn’t changing, but a lot of other guys had to be on their toes on the bench.”
When the Leafs got their best chance ever to shake Chara, it was Lupul who bailed them out. They were down 1-0 by then and another Bruins goal would mean another embarrassing night but Chara took a tripping penalty.
A whole two minutes on the power play without the looming presence of Chara must have seemed too good to believe for the Leafs. For their power play was awful. There were actually a couple of scoring chances for the Bruins as the Leafs fumbled the puck around.
Which is where Lupul came in. With two seconds left in the power play, he corralled a rebound and scored at 5:18 of the second period to tie the score 1-1.
As long as someone else was there to pick up the slack, Kessel’s struggles against the Bruins didn’t matter so much. Lupul showed when he was healthy he could be that player, both last season when he scored 25 goals in 66 games and this season with 11 in 16 games.
Then Frattin, who wasn’t dressed for Game 1, stepped forward a little less than seven minutes later. Once again, he took a shift for Kessel but this time he made such a nice rush down the right side you could have sworn Carlyle simply had Frattin switch sweaters with Kessel in another bid to get him away from Chara.
Frattin swept around defenceman Dennis Seidenberg, moved in on Rask and then flipped the puck across the slot to Lupul, who scored his second goal of the night and of the playoffs.
No Chara, no problem, as they say. And then it was left to Kessel to land a body shot with van Riemsdyk applying the coup de grace in the third period.
But the trick, now that the Chara spell has at least been dealt a mighty blow, is to keep it up.