With two rushes on the Calgary Flames goal, one in the second period and another in the third, Phil Kessel showed why Brian Burke has never wavered in saying he would trade those two first-round draft picks for him all over again.
The sorties produced the tying and winning goals for the Toronto Maple Leafs in a 3-2 win over the Calgary Flames at the Air Canada on Saturday night. It marked a comeback from a two-goal deficit by the Leafs, who were rusty from a week-long layoff and left them with a 3-0 record in the NHL regular season.
With Burke, the Leafs’ general manager, watching happily from the Air Canada Centre press box, Kessel made a remarkable rush late in the second period that showed off all his hockey skills and smarts. He took a pass from defenceman Carl Gunnarsson and showed his speed going down the right wing as Flames defenceman Chris Butler moved in to try and cut him off. As Butler made contact, Kessel dipped his leg but kept going with the Flames defenceman draped over him, kept his eye on goaltender Mikka Kiprusoff and snapped a shot under the cross bar.
Then, 41 seconds into the third period, Kessel made another rush on Kiprusoff and this time snuck a backhand shot past him for his fifth goal of the season.
“He can turn it on at any point and get you a goal,” said Kessel’s centre, Tyler Bozak, who drew an assist on the winning goal. “He’s a great one-on-one player.”
It was a big night all round for the Leafs’ top line, as left winger Joffrey Lupul scored their other goal on a setup from Kessel.
Leafs head coach Ron Wilson lauded Kessel for his all-round play, which is a big improvement from last season. He said Kessel showed up at training camp in much better physical shape than last season and built up his defensive game.
“He’s winning battles along the boards and when we get the lead I’m confident I can put him out in the last minute,” Wilsons said.
By the time the first period was six minutes old, there was no sign the Leafs were going to end the evening happily. The showed all of the rust to be expected from their week-long layoff, as the defence and goaltender James Reimer looked sloppy in allowing two quick goals from the Flames.
Calgary winger Lee Stempniak was allowed to cruise behind the Leaf net with no defender in sight, emerge on the other side and set up Curtis Glencross for an easy goal. One minute and 22 seconds later, Flames defenceman Scott Hannan fired a shot from the point that Reimer should have tracked down but which caught the top corner of the net.
Leafs head coach Ron Wilson called a timeout after Hannan’s goal to snap his young charges out of their funk and they gradually began to assert themselves.
“We didn’t play that bad in the first period,” Leaf captain Dion Phaneuf said. “We just had a three-minute stretch that really hurt us.”
The Leafs were much better through the second period, although they had to kill off a couple of Flames power plays late in the third to stay undefeated.
The last power play was a tough one, as Kessel was called for delaying the game at 18:45 and Kiprusoff was pulled to give the Flames a two-man advantage. But Reimer had a little luck in stopping Rene Bourque (who had half the net to shoot at, only to put the puck on Reimer’s pad) and Dave Steckel was almost flawless in winning faceoffs to keep the Flames on their heels.
“I just closed my eyes,” Reimer said with a laugh about the Bourque save. “I was lucky enough it didn’t go in.”
The Leafs are now in a busy stretch, as they play host to the Colorado Avalanche on Monday, the Winnipeg Jets on Wednesday and then play three road games in five nights starting Thursday against the Boston Bruins.