The Ottawa Senators appeared in good shape to win a key Atlantic Division game over the Toronto Maple Leafs but Phil Kessel decided to say something about that.
The Maple Leafs sniper struck for three goals over the last half of the game at the Air Canada Centre Saturday night, including the winner, to give the hosts a 6-3 win, the Leafs' ninth win in their last 11 NHL games.
Centre Tyler Bozak set up Kessel's winner after Senators goaltender Craig Anderson stopped the puck behind his net. It went to Senators defenceman Eric Gryba, who saw Bozak barrelling toward him and tried to clear the puck past him along the boards. But Bozak picked off the attempt and put the puck in front of the net for Kessel, who scored at 14:02.
It was the second time this season Kessel struck for three goals in a game and it was the fifth time in his seven NHL seasons he hit 30 goals. The winning goal also moved Kessel into second place in the NHL this season for goal-scoring.
Bozak and Kessel reversed roles on the insurance goal, with Kessel setting up Bozak with 1:23 left in the third period. Nazem Kadri added an empty-net goal.
"Obviously it's an important win for us, that's the most important thing," Kessel said. "I've had chances for a couple games to score."
At that point, seeing his reticent roommate and linemate holding a rare media scrum, Bozak walked to his stall next to Kessel in the Leafs dressing room and practically shouted, "He's talking? Four points and he talks."
Kessel promptly lost his train of thought, not that he was waxing eloquent anyway, until he was asked how he planned to celebrate the big night: "Go home and hang out."
The scoring heroics capped a Leaf comeback from a 2-0 Senators lead that was started by Kessel's first goal in the second period. Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle thought the turning point as a power-play goal by Kessel, his second, at 7:34 of the third period even though the Sens tied the game again on Chris Neil's second goal of the game before Kessel struck for his third.
"Yeah, in games like tonight, it was one of those where we weren't really good with the puck, we were sloppy with the puck," the coach said. "And then when the dust settles Phil finds a way to make a huge contribution."
The game started to drag as the midway mark of the second period approached but two goals from the Maple Leafs that tied the score 2-2 livened up the proceedings considerably. However, it wasn't just the goals that brought an edge to the game. A hit from behind by Kadri, seconds before he set up the tying goal, provided the tension.
Kadri knocked Senators defenceman Cody Ceci into the boards behind the Ottawa net, then chased the puck to the boards. He dug the puck out and threw it in front of the net to Joffrey Lupul, who tied the score at 14:39. It was the Leafs' second goal in a span of one minute and 38 seconds and woke up both teams.
The Senators were not happy a boarding penalty was not called on Kadri, their anger no doubt fuelled by the fact the Leafs had three power plays to their none by that point in the game. A few of them roughed up Kadri after the goal.
Kadri said he felt just before the check, Ceci "turned to try and give himself a little more room. At that point I'm just fully committed to the hit and I just finished my check. To be honest, I did let up a little bit."
While Senators head coach Paul MacLean was angry referees Paul Devorski (who was calling his 1,500th NHL game) and Dan O'Halloran did not call a penalty on Kadri, Ceci himself admitted he turned his back toward the Leaf player.
"I just kind of showed my back a bit hoping he'd slow up and ended up face first in the boards and then they scored right on the play," Ceci said. "It was a tough play, tough play for me. It was unfortunate I didn't get a call on the play and they ended up tying the game with that."
Ceci said he was "a little surprised" there was no call. "I guess I could've stayed down a little longer. But I just tried to get up as fast as I could to continue to play," he said.
Carlyle said he thought Kadri actually made contact with Ceci from the side and does not expect any further discipline from NHL vice-president and director of player safety Brendan Shanahan.
The hit aside, the assist and the goal marked Kadri's 14th points in his last nine games, another sign he is gearing up to match his breakout season of 2012-13 over the last half of this season.
The Maple Leafs planned a day off Sunday before leaving Monday for a two-game trip to Florida.
Greg McKegg, who was called up from the Leafs' farm team on Saturday when centre Peter Holland could not play because of an irritated foot from a tight fit with a new pair of skates, an injury called "lace-bite," was given just three minutes, 43 seconds of ice time in his Leafs debut.
Carlyle said centre Trevor Smith, who suffered an undisclosed injury in the weight room a few days ago, just as he was about to return from a broken hand, will not make the Florida trip. He refused to give any more information on the injury.
Follow me on Twitter: @dshoalts