Phil Kessel is a man of few words and, when it comes to facing his former team, a man of even fewer goals.
Give Kessel credit. The former Bruin spoke postgame on a night when his silence on the ice spoke volumes about his reputation as a faux franchise forward. Turned into white noise on skates, Kessel could only watch as the Bruins roared to a 4-1 victory over his Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals at TD Garden Wednesday night.
The Bruins don’t want to say it. They don’t have to. You can see it. They’re in Phil the Thrill’s head. It’s like when they sent him to Toronto in 2009 they put a hockey hex on him. He sees the Spoked-B sweaters and becomes an Empty Kessel.
This was Kessel’s 23d game against the Bruins and in that span he has yet to score an even-strength goal — he has three power-play strikes — and is a minus-22.
One of the major subplots of this quarterfinal series between these Original Six combatants is how Kessel will cope with the mental challenge of playing against his former club. It is in large part thanks to Kessel that the Maple Leafs are in the playoffs for the first time since 2004. It is in large part due to his habitual ineptitude against his former employers that their stay could be short-lived.
Heckled by the Spoked-Believers from the moment he touched the puck, Kessel gave it the full Casper. He was a ghost, playing an invisible game. Kessel finished with one measly shot and one takeaway in 13 minutes and 51 seconds of ice time, covering 21 shifts. It was a far cry from the player who tied for seventh in the NHL in scoring with 52 points, including 20 goals.
His first and only shot did not come until 2:16 had gone by in the third period.
“Just circumstance. That’s how it goes,” said Kessel, when asked to explain his vacant offensive performance. “You know, I think I missed a couple of them or whatever. But that’s part of the game.”
While the taciturn Toronto star was muted, it was the previously listless Bruins, coming into the playoffs on a 2-5-2 slide, who were the noisemakers.
It was perfect timing for the perfect foil. The Bruins should have an equity stake in Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment because they own Toronto.
“We didn’t play our game,” said Kessel. “We turned over the puck too much in the critical areas. That’s not our game, and they fed off it. We just didn’t play our game tonight.”
Kessel was not the only Maple Leaf who should have been drawing “Thank yous” from the Spoked-Believers Wednesday night.
There was goalie James Reimer, who let the Bruins’ first goal off the stick of defenseman Wade Redden deflect off him and in.
There was defenseman Matt Fraser, who made an egregious pass out of his own zone that looked like he was trying out for the Canadian Olympic curling team that led to a David Krejci goal at 10:25 of the second period that made it 3-1. There was defenseman Michael Kostka, who was minus-3.
Kessel wasn’t the only playoff no-show with a Maple Leaf across his chest. But per usual against the Black and Gold, he was the one most notable by his absence.
This had to be delightful to watch for Patriots owner Robert Kraft and his son Jonathan. Both were in attendance.
Who enjoys seeing former players scuffle more than the Patriots? The Krafts might make like Nathan Horton and pour some of the TD Garden ice on the Gillette Stadium field when Wes Welker returns to Foxborough Nov. 24.
Of course, Kessel’s disappearing act was to the delight of just about everyone in the crowd of 17,565, who serenaded him several times with derisive chants of his name.
“I don’t even know. I didn’t really pay attention to that,” Kessel said of the crowd’s reaction.
Kessel was booed the first few times he touched the puck. A few seconds after his not-so-warm welcome, Kessel was celebrating the Maple Leafs’ only goal. The Leafs took a 1-0 lead just 1:54 into the action on James van Riemsdyk’s power-play strike.
But it was all Bruins from there.
Redden, active in lieu of Dougie Hamilton, part of the Thank You Kessel hockey haul along with Tyler Seguin, tied the game and then factored into the second goal, a backbreaker that came with just 11.7 seconds left in the first period.
Seconds after van Riemsdyk had his bid for a shorthanded goal denied by the framework, Redden floated a wrister toward the net that was tipped home by Horton.
The Maple Leafs, a team full of playoff neophytes, never really recovered.
“I just thought we self-destructed,” said Toronto coach Randy Carlyle.
At one point in the third period, there was a tie-up in front of the net and Kessel and pucks provocateur Brad Marchand became tangled up. Marchand appeared to be whispering some sweet nothings about Kessel’s nothing-doing night into the Toronto star’s ears.
A coy Marchand said he didn’t notice any frustration on Kessel’s part.
“Not really, he stays pretty calm. He doesn’t really react to much. We were just having a friendly little chat,” said Marchand with a mischievous grin.
Kessel wasn’t heard from once again against the Bruins.
He can bet he’s going to being hearing about it a lot — from the Bruins, their fans, and the hockey-loving folks of Toronto — if that doesn’t change.
The Bruins can only hope Silent Phil keeps on unleashing more words than shots.