TORONTO – Phil Kessel emerged with maybe the best season of his young career, but if he and the Leafs are to elude the experience and fortitude of his former team in Boston, they will need more than just his extraordinary efforts.
"I know it's going to be made out to be Phil against Boston or Phil against Chara," said Leafs general manager Dave Nonis, just days before game one in Boston, "[but] it's not the way that playoff series are played, it's going to be team against team. He's a big part of our team."
Production often came and went through the reluctant 25-year-old star in the Leafs disorienting stumble to the postseason, Kessel piling together 10 goals and 17 points in the final 10 games while others loomed quiet. Squaring off against a first round opponent that not only ranked as the third-best defensive club in the NHL, but one that has simply owned Kessel, it's clear that the Toronto supporting cast will need to pick up the slack around their star sniper if they are to overcome their self-accepted underdog status.
"At the end of the day, he's just one piece of our team," said Joffrey Lupul of the mercurial Kessel, who tallied nine goals and 15 points in 15 career playoff games with Boston. "He's going to get a lot of the attention from fans, media, and probably even their team, but it's not a one-man team. If they're really concentrating on taking Phil out of the game, other guys have to step up. It's not fair to rely on one guy or put the pressure on him."
Lupul was one of the few Leafs other than Kessel to remain productive offensively in April. While not quite ascending to the levels of his dominant March – eight goals and 13 points in six games – the 29-year-old did manage three goals and five points in seven games. Outside of his efforts and those of Kessel and James van Riemsdyk, who posted four goals and nine points in the final month, the Leafs attack up front was generally subdued.
Sweltering with 17 markers in the first 36 games, Nazem Kadri cooled with just one goal in April. He was joined on a silent trip by Clarke MacArthur and Matt Frattin, who each waded through a dry spell of 15 games. Mikhail Grabovski also remained a lost cause offensively and Nik Kulemin, who despite being an effective contributor elsewhere, ended the year without a goal in 10 games. And while contributions from the blue-line – Dion Phaneuf and Cody Franson primarily – and third-line elements like Jay McClement and Leo Komarov helped the cause down the stretch, more will be needed against the Bruins, who boast the NHL's fourth-best penalty kill and are sixth-best defensively at even-strength.
"Everybody's got a new start," said Leafs coach Randy Carlyle following practice on Monday.
Lupul and Kadri could just be the key, especially with an "expectation" from Nonis that Tyler Bozak will be ready to return for Game 1, following two games on the shelf with an upper body injury. Bozak's readiness would allow Carlyle to shift Kadri back onto a second unit with Lupul and hope the two find sparks once more. That in turn would divert at least some of the Bruins attention from Kessel.
All of this does not suggest that an ordinary effort from the league's seventh-leading scorer will suffice for the Leafs to have success. Kessel's challenge remains, quite simply, with the 6-foot-9 mountain that is Zdeno Chara. The Bruins captain has thoroughly snuffed out the attempts of his former teammate, to the point that Kessel has yet to score at even-strength in 22 career games versus Boston.
"Everyone always looks at his size and the intimidation factor, but the fact of the matter is he's a really good defender," Lupul said of the former Norris Trophy winner. "He's got a long stick and he uses it well; he probably uses that even better than his body to be honest. You don't see him often throwing big, punishing checks, but he's always freeing up pucks with his long reach."
It's that reach and ability that has kept Kessel in check, not to mention the meticulous workings of Bruins coach Claude Julien, who thrusts Chara onto the ice whenever the Leafs sniper looms. Kessel went pointless in four games against Boston this year, with the Leafs managing only seven goals themselves in three close defeats and one victory against a team that has owned them in recent years.
"This isn't about one player against another organization," Nonis declared of Kessel, who declined media requests on Monday afternoon. "This is about our group preparing to play a team that isn't too far removed from winning a Cup."