BOSTON -- Phil Kessel can’t get much traction offensively when Zdeno Chara is out on the ice hounding him at every turn, but the former Bruin and Toronto sniper found another way to succeed on Saturday.
Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle managed to get Kessel out there for roughly four minutes of ice time without Chara matched up against him by constantly switching up his linemates.
It finally paid dividends in the third period.
Kessel got behind the defensive duo of Dennis Seidenberg and Johnny Boychuk in what was a clear defensive breakdown for the Black and Gold. Nazem Kadri found Kessel with a perfect stretch pass, and No. 81 flipped a wrister past Tuukka Rask on a breakaway that ultimately became the winning goal in a 4-2 victory for the Leafs in Game 2.
Amazingly, it marked the first time in 24 career games against the Black and Gold that Kessel potted an even strength goal against his former team.
“I was switching quite a bit, trying to get away from [Chara],” said Kessel. “He’s one of the best, right? I was fortunate to get a breakaway there, and lucky it went in.
“Obviously it was nice to get one in. We battled hard, played our game, and we were fortunate. They’re a good team and we got some lucky bounces out there.”
The unlikely Kessel strike was the ultimate symbol for the Maple Leafs that they have some hope in their first playoff series in nine years, and it was a blow to a Boston team that Kessel forced his way off of four years ago in restricted free agency. Kessel now has four goals in 24 career games with a minus-21 rating against the Bruins, but there’s no doubt a playoff game-winner erases many of the invisible regular-season performances.
“I think you can see the smile on [Kessel’s] face and I guess the energy that our bench got from it. It was obviously a big positive in that respect,” said Carlyle. “As far as keeping him away, well some things we did work for a while.
“But they always have home ice and last change. They’re pretty good at getting Chara on and off the ice. They’ve done this before, and this is really the first time that we’ve really went as hard tonight as that per say.”
Clearly it wasn’t just a Kessel thing even though his breakaway goal ended up being the game-winner. All of Toronto’s best players, Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, James van Riemsdyk, Dion Phaneuf and James Reimer, played much better in Game 2, and served a big role in their ability to even out the series at 1-1 headed to Toronto.
It never really felt much like much of a rivalry with the Maple Leafs and Phil Kessel because the Bruins were always the windshield, and Toronto was the proverbial bug constantly getting squashed. And it would always feel one-sided until Toronto managed to make Boston hurt a little bit during the playoffs.
But now there really should be a healthy playoff rivalry developing as Kessel and his Leafs bunch finally drew blood against the Big Bad Bruins on Saturday night.