TORONTO – His two linemates chuckle every time they see his face plastered over the video screen at the Air Canada Centre. He's Phil Kessel, the team's leading scorer and soon-to-be highest paid player, shyly covering his face at the slightest bit of attention.
“I guess he doesn't want people to see his face or something like that or he's just extremely exhausted,” Tyler Bozak said of Kessel with a laugh following the Leafs fourth consecutive victory. “It's one of the two. I think he's just too shy to put his face up there.”
“He's a private guy,” James van Riemsdyk added. “[But] it's tough when you play in a market like this and you're the leading goal-scorer and one of the best players in the league to keep that fully private.”
Kessel has rather quietly and in full avoidance of the spotlight led the Leafs recent charge back to respectability.
He scored his team-leading 23rd goal in a win over the Canadiens, also making the critical first pass which preceded van Riemsdyk's eventual game winner. The two-point effort gave the 26-year-old 10 points in a string of five games – four of them wins – also shooting him back into the Top 10 in league scoring, now with 48 points in 50 games.
His elevated performance has lifted the Leafs from the stench of a four-game losing skid into their longest win streak of the season.
“I think he pulls the group every single night,” said Bozak, who has 17 points himself in the past 14 games. “He's our best player so when he's going I think it filters through the lineup and makes everyone go a little harder.”
Toronto improved to 21-6-3 this season when Kessel records a point. His line has often proved the sole engine for the team's offensive production. During a three-game run from Jan. 10-12 for instance, the trio had a hand in all eight goals the Leafs would score.
“I think he creates pretty much every night, it's sometimes a matter of getting some bounces,” said van Riemsdyk, who deposited Bozak's feed beyond Carey Price in the 5-3 win.
Maybe the most unique star (and personality) in the league, Kessel continues to show zero interest in the very bright spotlight his terrific play often demands. As has become the unusual, but consistent standard, the soon-to-be two-time U.S. Olympian refused to speak with media following Saturday's win and hasn't done so, in fact, since the Winter Classic.
Often shirking the public responsibility that comes with being arguably the team's best player, Kessel is quite literally content to let his play do all the talking.
“I always get a laugh out of it when they show him on the Jumbotron and he's got his head in between his legs,” said van Riemsdyk with a chuckle.
1. Rivalry Stoked
It was back in late November at the Bell Centre in Montreal. Max Pacioretty scored the fourth unanswered goal for the Canadiens, holstering his stick in celebratory fashion en route to a 4-2 win over the Leafs. Then on Saturday evening at the ACC, P.K. Subban lingered by the Toronto bench after the Canadiens first goal and offered something, according to those present, in the way of smack talk.
“If they want to play that game then we'll play it too,” said van Riemsdyk.
And so it was after van Riemsdyk scored the go-ahead goal and eventual game-winner that the 24-year-old winger grabbed the Maple Leafs crest on his sweater in celebratory retaliation.
“I'm usually not one to engage in stuff like that, but I was a little bit fired up – just kind of happened,” he said.
The Leafs, who now sit four points back of the Canadiens in the Atlantic division, snatched the third game of the season series with Montreal, the rivalry simmering to new levels in a spirited back-and-forth tilt between the two storied clubs.
Jonathan Bernier, who stopped 30 shots in his first career win against the team he grew up rooting for, said the fever between the two teams had intensified, at least in part, because of the Canadiens goal celebrations – which also drew the ire of the Senators earlier this week.
“Those are type of plays that [make] you start hating guys,” said Bernier with a grin.
2. Kadri's Dazzling Night
Teammates joked that Nazem Kadri may have been inspired by the presence of Lakers star Kobe Bryant at the ACC on Saturday. Struggling in recent weeks, Kadri had one of his more impactful games of the year against the Canadiens, dishing out two assists in victory.
The 23-year-old had just five points in the previous 15 games.
“He's a typical young player,” said head coach Randy Carlyle afterward, noting the impact of Kadri's physical play throughout the night. “These are learning curves that young players have to absorb and retain that will allow him a long career.
“The good players find out early that it's not easy every day and there's a certain program that you have to follow and there's certain things you can and can't do. And when things aren't going your way on the ice you have to find another way to be effective.”
Kadri, who also won 13 of 23 faceoffs, set up a pair of highlight-reel goals; the first saw him dangle the puck through the legs of Alexei Emelin on the run before distributing it to Cody Franson; the latter saw him fire a bullet cross-ice pass to an open Mason Raymond on the power-play.
As for Bryant, who was in Toronto for Sunday's game against the Raptors, Kadri grinned, “Maybe I can meet him somehow.”
3. Bolland Rehab Pt. 1
A tenuous rehab process has meant a lot of Apple TV for Dave Bolland.
“I've been crushing that a lot actually,” said a cheerful Bolland on Saturday morning.
The 27-year-old continues to work his way back from a severed left ankle tendon, a “slow rehab” which has kept him out of the lineup for the past 35 games. Though he had no firm timetable for a return, Bolland has been back on skates in recent days for the first time since the injury and hopes to rejoin his teammates on the ice at some point soon.
“It's not like any other rehab when you break an ankle and you can just say six weeks and you're back and it's healed,” said Bolland. “You cut a tendon and it's got to re-heal itself. You've got to do the rehab, do the movements with the trainers at the gym. It's not fun. It's grueling.”
Bolland, who had a special boot designed for his return to the ice, described his early days of skating as painful and full of lessons. “You've got to learn how to work that tendon again and work with it,” he said.
4. Bolland Rehab Pt. 2
Bolland, who had six goals and 10 points and was arguably the team's best player before going down in Vancouver on Nov. 2, said the mental side of such a serious injury has proved challenging.
“When you're watching and you're off the ice it does screw with your head a lot mentally,” he said, describing the difficulty of remaining patient through a time consuming recovery.
The Mimico native was admittedly rattled when he read about long-time Dallas Star Mike Modano's six-month recovery from a similar injury. “You sort of hear some of those things and you have in the back of your head, like when you're going to come back or what's going to happen. You do get a little mentally broken down.”
Neither the team nor Bolland himself could say when he'd be in line to return. “You can't afford to take any type of risk with this type of injury,” Carlyle said. “We all know that it's a tough one to come back from. It's a long, tedious process, specifically where it was in the tendon that was injured. It's pretty dramatic.”
5. Options with Gleason
One added benefit, thus far, of the Tim Gleason acquisition is the options he offers the club on defence.
Rather than exposing either 23-year-old Jake Gardiner or 19-year-old Morgan Rielly to the considerable competition of a role in the top-four – as was often the case earlier in the year – Carlyle has been able to plug the more experienced Gleason into a spot with Cody Franson.
“It's allowed us a little bit more comfort with those two on who they have to play against consistently,” Carlyle said of Gardiner and Rielly, who both played under 18 minutes against the Canadiens. “It's not to say that they don't go out against some of the top lines, but if they're in your top four they see a steady diet of that versus if they're playing in the 5-6 slot.”
Gleason played nearly nine minutes as the Leafs eventually protected a one-goal lead in the third period. Gardiner and Rielly meanwhile were limited to about five minutes apiece in the final frame.
4 – Consecutive wins for the Leafs, their longest streak of the season.
5 – Consecutive games with a point for Phil Kessel, who has three goals and 10 points in that span.
3 – Goals in the past 22 games for Mason Raymond, who scored his 13th of the year against Montreal.
17 – Points in the past 14 games for Tyler Bozak.
1 – Career win for Jonathan Bernier against Montreal. A Quebec native, Bernier grew up a Canadiens fan.
13-23 – Nazem Kadri in the faceoff circle against the Canadiens.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 22.4% (5th)
Season: 77.3% (27th)
Quote of the Night
“I guess he doesn't want people to see his face or something like that or he's just extremely exhausted. It's one of the two. I think he's just too shy to put his face up there.”
-Tyler Bozak, on Phil Kessel's displeasure with the spotlight at the ACC.
The Leafs hit the road for four games, landing first in Phoenix for a Monday night affair with the Coyotes.