Kessel currently stands as the NHL's leading scorer with 10-10-20 totals through 12 games, and will likely still be in the top spot when the Leafs host Boston on Saturday night. He's been one of the biggest surprises of the young NHL season, but his success doesn't come as a shock to his former coach.
"Phil's matured," Bruins coach Claude Julien said after his club's practice Thursday at the Garden. "Just like any other player he's getting older and when I say he's matured, [it's] as a person I'm sure. As a player you can see it. He's a lot stronger hanging on to the puck than he ever was. He shoots the puck and he's finding ways to get shots off. Every game he has a lot of opportunities, so he's becoming a better player with age."
Kessel turned 24 last month and is now in his sixth NHL season. He's endured trials on and off the ice, having battled testicular cancer and shoulder problems as well as playoff benchings and contentious contract talks that eventually paved the way for his departure from Boston.
His talent was never in question, and Kessel appears to have grown from those experiences and is now finally getting the most out of his impressive array of skills. But questions do remain. He's had hot streaks like this before. Will this run last or will his game soon slip once again?
"He's off to a good start and right now the only thing that everybody kind of wants to see is whether he's able to sustain it or not," Julien said. "But definitely he's a better player, and I don't think that was ever in question that he would become a better player. That's what I see, [he's] stronger on the puck and has a lot of confidence right now."
Kessel has traditionally been a strong starter. With 30-15-45 totals in 51 career October games, the first month of the season has been by far his most productive. He's averaged 0.88 points a game in October, compared to 0.68 points a game overall.
Kessel has scored at least one point in all but two games this year, but the Bruins were one of the teams to shut him down in a 6-2 win at the Garden on Oct. 20. Kessel has struggled mightily against his old club, but seemed to finally break through late last season. After managing just 0-1-1 totals and a minus-6 in his first nine games against Boston, Kessel had 2-3-5 totals and was just a minus-1 in the final three games between the Northeast Division rivals last year.
The first clash this season represented a step back for Kessel, but he has continued to pile up the points against everyone else and the Bruins expect it to be a challenge to contain him again on Saturday. Kessel is also far from the only threat on the resurgent Leafs, as linemate Joffrey Lupul is tied for sixth in the league with 8-6-14 totals and Dion Phaneuf is fourth among defensemen at 2-9-11.
Overall, Toronto is third in the league with an average of 3.33 goals per game and second in total goals with 40 heading into Thursday's game in Columbus and after a 5-3 win in New Jersey on Wednesday. The Bruins are tied for 20th with 26 goals and a 2.36 average. Boston is allowing just 2.54 goals a game, while the Leafs are tied for 26th in the league with a team GAA of 3.17.
"They [play] a high-tempo, very open type of game," Julien said. "[Wednesday] night was back and forth and certainly created a lot of goals on both sides. That's their MO. We've certainly dealt with teams like that before. We've just got to be at our best. If we do that properly, the offense will come from that as you saw the other night [against Ottawa]. That's how we feed our offense is from good defense. So if they're going to open up, then we're going to have to make sure we're ready to play good defense."