“I don’t want to stick it to them,” said Kessel after Thursday’s morning skate, as the Leafs prepared to take on Boston for the first time this season. “I want to obviously play well. Last year I had a lot of chances. I just didn’t score. Hopefully I can change that this year and the most important thing is to get the win.”
Kessel, 23, struggled mightily in his first clashes with his old club last season, managing just one assist and no goals and finishing a minus-5 in six games against Boston. The rest of the Leafs didn’t fare much better, as the Bruins were 4-1-1 against Toronto.
“I had a lot of chances, I just couldn’t bury it,” said Kessel. “They played well. They’re a good team over there, so it’s not easy to score on them anyway. We’re just going to have to play a good game [Thursday night].”
Kessel has had plenty of good games so far this season, as he leads the Leafs with seven goals and nine points through eight games. Toronto coach Ron Wilson expects him to continue that level of play on Thursday, and put his past struggles against Boston behind him.
“[I expect him to] just keep playing the way he’s playing right now and stop worrying about whether he scored against the Bruins,” said Wilson. “Last year is last year. We’re an entirely different team. He’s played great and I’m sure at some point [he’ll score against Boston]. It may not be [Thursday], but as long as he has an effective game and we find a way to win, that’s all I’m really worried about.”
Despite Kessel’s struggles against Boston last year, the Bruins are plenty wary of his ability to score goals in bunches.
“Obviously last year he had a bit of a hard time against us, but we can’t take him lightly at all,” said Bruins forward Milan Lucic. “We know he’s a great goal-scorer. He scored 36 with us here [in 2008-09] and 30 last year, so we know whenever he gets his opportunities he’s going to do whatever he can to put the puck in the back of the net.”
The Bruins are also making sure they don’t focus solely on Kessel.
“It isn’t the Boston Bruins vs. Phil Kessel. It’s the Boston Bruins vs. the Toronto Maple Leafs,” said Bruins goalie Tim Thomas. “Phil is definitely a part and you have to be aware of him. It takes a lot of hard work. You have to be on your toes all the time because he’s so explosive, so fast and he’s got that quick snap shot.”
The Bruins might not focus solely on Kessel, but he knows the Garden fans will hone in on him all night long. Last year, Kessel was booed every time he touched the puck, and he expects a similar reception on Thursday.
“It will probably be the same as last year,” said Kessel. “They can do whatever they want.”
Despite the jeers upon his return, Kessel made sure to stress that he enjoyed the time he spent in Boston while playing for the Bruins.
“I loved it here,” said Kessel. “The city was great to me. The fans were great to me. I loved playing here. I had great teammates here. Obviously it didn’t work out, but that happens.”
In the end, it may have worked out perfectly for both sides. Kessel got a fresh start in Toronto and the Leafs added a front-line forward they desperately lacked, while the Bruins reaped a haul of draft picks that has already produced Tyler Seguin.
With Seguin, second-rounder Jared Knight and this year’s first-round pick, the Bruins certainly have no complaints about their end of the deal, while Wilson was quick to point out the short-term dividends the Leafs have received.
“Well Phil Kessel’s got seven goals, Tyler’s got what, one?” said Wilson. “That’s a trade you talk about five years from now, when Tyler Seguin is a full-time NHL player. I don’t think Tyler right now today is nearly as good as Phil. We’ve given up a couple years with Phil, but he scored 30 goals last year. He’s probably going to score 40 to 50 goals this year so we’re happy with what we have right now for sure.”