The only thing Bruins fans had to thank Phil Kessel for this time was a playoff loss.
Kessel silenced his TD Garden tormentors and his critics with a third-period goal that ultimately stood as the winner in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 4-2 victory over the Bruins in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference opeining round at TD Garden Saturday night. Kessel’s goal gave Toronto a 3-1 lead just 53 seconds into the third period and helped send the series back to Toronto tied at a game apiece.
More significant than knotting the series, the goal may have broken Kessel’s Black-and-Gold mental block. It’s bad news for the Bruins if Kessel plays against them the way he plays against the other 28 teams in the league. If the Real Phil Kessel stands up, this is a different series for the Bruins.
One game after Kessel had been a ghost in a Maple Leafs sweater, registering one shot, he came back to haunt his former team with a huge goal. The truth is that even if Kessel hadn’t put his name on the scoresheet, he had redeemed himself and removed the vacancy sign that hung around his game after Game 1. The reticent revenge-seeker’s goal just made his return to form that much sweeter.
“They’re putting a lot of attention toward Phil and shutting him down. Things aren’t going to be easy for him this series. For him to contribute a huge goal like that it’s big for us,” said Joffrey Lupul, who netted two goals of his own.
It wasn’t Roger Clemens staring up at the owners’ box at Fenway Park after he struck out 16 Red Sox in his return as a Toronto Blue Jay in 1997. But Kessel spread his arms wide, and just as he had parted the pads of Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask, the ex-Bruin’s lips parted into a boyish smile.
“I was happy obviously,” said Kessel. “It’s been a long time against these guys to score. I got lucky. I knocked five-hole and I was fortunate.”
It was Phil the Thrill’s first even-strength strike against his former team since he was traded by Boston in September of 2009, a span of 24 games, including the playoffs.
Like Kessel on skates, his liberation from languid play against his former club happened in a flash. A Boston shot was blocked by Ryan Hamilton and the puck was shoved to Nazem Kadri, who hit a streaking Kessel.
Suddenly, Kessel was free, of Bruins defenders, of a taunting crowd, of the weight of failure against his former mates. He put the puck between the pads of Rask, who got a piece, but not enough to prevent Kessel’s deliverance.
“It’s huge,” said Maple Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk, who scored Toronto’s fourth goal. “Obviously, being a guy playing against your former team you always have that extra motivation to go out there and hopefully bury one. He’s obviously a huge part of our team. He does a lot for us offensively, and to see him break through like that, it’s definitely exciting for him and exciting for us because obviously he’s a key guy for us.”
It’s exciting for the Maple Leafs and foreboding for the Bruins. The last thing Boston needs is Kessel finding his comfort zone. The Bruins have become accustomed to Kessel morphing into Phil the Chill. Neutralizing Kessel was supposed to be one of their advantages in the series.
Kessel deserves credit for defrosting his scoring touch against the Bruins. But a stick salute to Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle for freeing up his star forward from the clutches of Zdeno Chara with some strategic shifting.
After watching Chara act as a giant eraser for Kessel in Game 1, Carlyle decided to play hide and seek with Kessel in the second game, mixing up his line combinations in an effort to keep Kessel away from Chara, who wasn’t on the ice for Kessel’s goal.
Sometimes Kessel was on the ice with Kadri and Hamilton. Other times he hopped over the boards to skate with fellow first-liners Tyler Bozak and Lupul.
The tactic helped Kessel find his footing, as he was much more active and engaged in the action than he had been in Game 1, when he didn’t register his only shot until the third period. He had three shots after two periods. He finished with four shots in 17 minutes, 13 seconds of ice time and had another shot blocked.
“I was switching quite a bit, trying to get away from Z,” said Kessel. “He’s one of the best, right? I was fortunate to get a breakaway there and lucky it went it.”
It also helped that the Bruins were without defenseman Andrew Ference, suspended by the NHL for one game for a check that included an elbow to the head of Mikhail Grabovski in Game 1.
That prompted Bruins coach Claude Julien to split up the shutdown pairing of Chara and Dennis Seidenberg.
Kessel’s last playoff goal came in the same building, but for the Bruins. He had two goals in a 4-0 Boston victory in Game 5 of the 2009 Eastern Conference semifinals against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Before this series, he hadn’t played in the playoffs since, as the Leafs are skating for Lord Stanley’s chalice for the first time since 2004.
Despite the derisive chants aimed in his direction, the Kessel trade has worked out for both the Bruins and the Maple Leafs. Both got what they wanted.
Kessel is used to hearing the “Thank You, Kessel” chants from Bruins fans. But in Game 2 it was the Maple Leafs who were thankful for Kessel, as he welcomed himself to this playoff series.Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist and the host of Boston Sports Live. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.