The Bruins-Maple Leafs first-round playoff series is a matchup filled with players, coaches and a pair of organizations under immense pressure for a multitude of reasons. But it’s tough to argue that anyone will feel the weight of the world on their shoulders more than Leafs forward Phil Kessel.
The 25-year-old (he’s really only 25?) is a polarizing figure, and this series will personify that. He’s one of the Leafs’ biggest offensive weapons, yet he’s not necessarily viewed as a game-changing talent. He doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, and he’s not someone you expect to rise to the occasion.
That may seem unfair, but really, what proof has Kessel provided to the contrary? The bright lights of the playoffs will shine bright, especially in Toronto, where hockey fans and media alike have the highest of expectations. Kessel’s tendency has been to shy away from the big stage, whether it’s on or off the ice. Just ask the throng of media that is likely still waiting for Kessel to talk to them in the Toronto dressing room.
Expect that all to be intensified in the coming days and weeks when Kessel and the Leafs take on the Bruins. In theory, it’s a chance for Kessel to finally prove to his former team what it’s missing, but history tells us there’s very little chance of that happening. If he is able to do that, it will be the first time he’s done so since he was shipped out of Boston in 2009.
Kessel has since played 22 games against his former employers, and he’s been an absolute ghost in those games. He’s yet to score an even-strength goal against, totaling just three power-play goals to go along with six assists. He’s a minus-22 in those games, seemingly on the ice for every big goal scored by the Bruins in that time, a stretch in which Toronto has gone just 7-12-3 against their Northeast Division rivals.
The burning question that should be asked is, why is this going to be any different for Kessel? What has he done in his career to this point that makes us believe he’ll finally rise to the moment and propel his team? Sure, there’s a chance that this does turn into that defining moment in Kessel’s career, the moment that changes the way we look at him as a player and person. But again, what reason do we have to believe that will happen?
Oh, and then there’s also the Zdeno Chara factor. Turtle as he may against the Bruins, Kessel’s ability to produce against the Bruins has been severely hampered by having to be checked by one of the best defensemen in hockey.
Much was made about the fact that Kessel didn’t meet with the media Monday in Toronto, a situation that became even uglier when general manager Dave Nonis was forced to address it publicly upon meeting with the media Monday afternoon.
“Our players will be available on a going-forward basis,” he said.
That is what it is. Anyone who has ever heard Kessel talk knows we’re not missing much by him skipping his media availability. What it may illustrate, though, is Kessel’s unwillingness to embrace the situation and rise above it, by simply fielding a handful of questions.
That’s probably also the same reason we shouldn’t this Maple Leaf to turn over a new leaf in this playoff series, either.