Humble Kessel Key to Toronto’s Resurgence

It would be acceptable to suggest that Phil Kessel’s career would have been a success after he survived a bout with testicular cancer and returned to play in the NHL. But the soft-spoken Kessel forced Boston to trade him, inevitably to Toronto, has a burning desire to win the Stanley Cup and after the first month of this season the 24-year-old just may lead the Leafs to their first championship since 1967. “No hard feelings,” he said when asked if he was jealous. “They had a great year last year, I’m happy for them and hopefully one day we win one here (in Toronto).” Then he added with a grin, “Preferably this year.”

He currently leads the league in goals (10) and points (21), while helping Torontoto a hot start this season (9-4-1) good enough for second place in the Eastern Conference behind Pittsburgh. Brian Burke, the Leafs’ GM, paid a hefty ransom to acquire Kessel from Boston — sending two first round picks and a second round pick — and although the Bruins were able to obtain the uber-talented Tyler Seguin in the 2010 NHL draft (with the Maple Leafs second overall pick) and win a Stanley Cup last season, Toronto should be better in the long run if Kessel continues to evolve into a consistent sniper.

Drafted by Boston fifth overall in 2006, Kessel was two months into his NHL career when he was diagnosed with cancer. “By far, it was the scariest thing I’ve ever had to go through,” he admitted. “It made me stronger.” Remarkably, he missed only 11 regular season games and was back in the Bruins’ lineup by January of 2007. “Obviously it changes you,” he said. “You live life to its fullest and you never take anything for granted.” His final season (2008-09) in Beantown is where his talent really began to show as he netted 36 goals in 70 games, beginning a stretch of three consecutive 30-goal seasons.

In 2010 Kessel enjoyed one of the highlights of his career to date — representing the United States at the Winter Olympics, where the squad earned a silver medal after losing to Canada in overtime. “It was a great experience, I had a great time,” Kessel recalled with a smile. “It’s too bad we didn’t win that last game, but it was great to be a part of.”

Last season he was selected to play in his first All-Star game and this season his hot play in October earned him NHL player-of-the-month. “I’m playing with a good team here,” Kessel said, spurning the spotlight. “I have good linemates; we’ve been clicking really well this year so far. But it’s a long year; hopefully we can keep it up.”

It appears the sky is the limit for Kessel who has already appeared in 388 NHL games, scoring 266 points (138g-128a), and his continued development will most likely determine if Toronto ends the league’s longest championship drought.

Dan Rice can be reached at drdiablo321@yahoo.com.

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Lupul Tricks Devils with 3 Goals in 5-3 Leafs Win

Toronto 5               Devils 3

Toronto Maple Leafs winger Joffrey Lupul was a few days late but he enjoyed a bunch of treats as he scored a natural hat trick in the second period of his squad’s 5-3 win over the New Jersey Devils on Wednesday night at Prudential Center. In 17 previous contests against New Jersey Lupul had managed just four goals, but on this night he notched his third career hat trick; his first since December 12, 2007. “This is a game we really wanted to have,” said Lupul, “we have another road game tomorrow night. We wanted to start this (road trip) off on the right note.”

Martin Brodeur, making his first start in seven games for the Devils, was a bit rusty and the opportunistic Leafs took advantage, never trailing when the game was a back-and-forth contest. “It was a big test for me to go through this game. I felt good later on (in the game), there’s just that kind of spark, knowing I’m able to go full out,” Brodeur said afterwards.

Joey Crabb (who entered the game with seven goals in 77 career games) started the scoring bonanza 8:37 into the match with his first of this season when he whacked the puck out of midair past Brodeur’s stick side. Dainius Zubrus evened the score on the power play less than four minutes later when he punched a rebound past Toronto’s Jonas Gustavsson for his third of the season. Mikhail Grabovski gave Toronto a 2-1 lead going into the first intermission when he converted a diagonal slap-pass from defenseman Jake Gardiner that Brodeur had no chance of stopping.

When Gustavsson took an interference penalty behind his cage early in the second period, the Devils made him pay as Patrik Elias whipped a one-timer past the goalie for his fifth of the season; the power play goal was the 93rd of his career, replacing John MacLean as the franchise’s all-time leader in that category. (elias quote)

Lupul began his dominance three minutes after Elias’ tying goal when he was Johnny-on-the-spot at 6:31– he was wide open in the slot as Mike Komisarek’s rebounded popped off of Brodeur and onto his stick. David Clarkson slipped a backhander past Gustavsson on a breakaway at 8:15 to even the score yet again, but Lupul was just about to seal the deal.

Ninety seconds later he stick-handled around three defenders and snapped a wicked wrist shot past Brodeur’s glove hand for what turned out to be a highlight-reel game-winning goal. Just over three minutes later he completed the trick when Grabovski found him wide open at the side of the net after a crazy sequence that left Brodeur totally out of position.

When asked if the hat trick meant anything more because it was against Brodeur (the league’s all-time leader in wins and shutouts), Lupul wasn’t shy, “It does mean a little bit more,” he explained. “I played a ton against this guy when I was in Philly, it seems like he always had my number. Tonight, the second one was a bit of a lucky one; it’s pretty cool to do it against him.”

Brodeur admitted he was rusty, but was happy this first game back from injury was behind him. “Definitely I would have loved a different result,” he said after surrendering five goals on 23 shots. “I didn’t play well at all. We scored three goals, two on the power play; that should have been enough to at least have a better chance in this game.”

Game Notes: Adam Larsson had his first career point for New Jersey, assisting on Elias’ goal; Brad Mills registered his first career assist on Clarkson’s goal. Phil Kessel (two assists) continues to lead the NHL in scoring with 20 points (10g-10a) in 12 games. Ilya Kovalchuk also assisted on Elias’ goal and has 36 points in 36 career games against the Maple Leafs; he also led all skaters in ice-time with 24:52. Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf led his team in ice-time with 24:44 and all players with four blocked shots. Lupul and Kovalchuk led everyone with five shots on goal each. New Jersey (4-5-1) next plays at Philadelphia (7-4-1) andToronto (8-3-1) will play their next match at Columbus (2-9-1), both games are Thursday night.

Dan’s Three Stars of the Game:

#1 – Joffrey Lupul (Tor) – 3 goals, gw (8)

#2 – Mikhail Grabovski (Tor) – goal (5), assist (4)

#3 – Phil Kessel (Tor) – 2 assists (10)

Dan Rice can be reached at drdiablo321@yahoo.com.

Kovalchuk Hits 30 as Devils Top Toronto

Devils 4 Toronto 2

One hundred million dollars can buy you a lot of things; the New Jersey Devils chose to invest their $100 million into Ilya Kovalchuk, one of the NHL’s most lethal goal scorers. In his first full season with the Devils Kovalchuk has disappointed, amazed, awed and disappeared (in that order), but he reached a number of milestones in his team’s 4-2 win over the also-eliminated Toronto Maple Leafs at the Prudential Center on Wednesday night.

Playing in his 700th NHL game, Kovalchuk scored his 30th goal of the season, giving the Devils a 1-0 lead 13:47 into the game, assuring that he wouldn’t match his career-low in goals for a season; he scored 29 in his rookie season with Atlanta in 2001-02. In the second period he had the primary assist on Mattias Tedenby’s goal at 14:29 (making it 2-0) for the 700th point of his nine-year career.

At 15:34 of the second period, 65 seconds after Tedenby’s tally, New Jersey defenseman Henrik Tallinder made it 3-0 with a blast past Leafs’ goalie James Reimer from the slot. Reimer, who has been splendid for Toronto in his rookie season, had no help really from his teammates through the first two periods was mercifully pulled by coach Ron Wilson to start the third period and the move seemed to spark his sluggish club.

Phil Kessel got the Leafs on the board with his 31st of the season at 6:18 on a power play, whipping a one-timer past Martin Brodeur after collecting a nice centering pass from Joffrey Lupul. Jean-Sebastien Giguere made eleven saves in total during the period for Toronto and Tyler Bozak cut the lead to 3-2 when he scored a 3-on-5 shorthanded goal at 12:42. Devils’ center Travis Zajac kind of won the face-off on the play, but both Kovalchuk and Brian Rolston were unable to corral the puck as Bozak raced past Rolston and roared in on Brodeur. Bozak scored on his backhand, slipping the puck between Brodeur’s stick and right leg pad. “I kind of gave that guy the puck,” admitted Zajac. “It was a bad play by me there; other than that we played pretty good.”

New Jersey coach Jacques Lemaire called a timeout and eventually his team settled down for the final 7:18, limiting the Leafs to only seven shots on goal for the whole period and 24 for the game. “I thought we played well (after the shorthanded goal,” said Lemaire. “The guys came back to their game; tried to put pressure on them. We skated, we moved the puck, I thought we did very well.” Patrik Elias scored into an empty net with 9.7 seconds left, giving him 20 goals for the ninth time in his 13 seasons with the Devils.

“It’s been a rough season this year,” said Brodeur after the win, “hopefully we’ll have a great season next year.” Lemaire knows he couldn’t have asked for more down the stretch from his star netminder. “He’s been really good lately; really good. He’s had at least two great months.”

Game Notes: Kessel’s goal extended his point streak to nine games (3g-7a); Elias has a five-game point streak (4g-4a). Devils forward Dainius Zubrus left after a collision along the boards in the first period and did not return. “My head’s okay, I really think I’ll be fine,” said Zubrus in the locker room after the game. “We’ll check it out a little more tomorrow, but everything’s coming back right now so I’ll be okay.” Zach Parise sat out his second straight game after returning from knee surgery on Saturday; the Devils offered no update on his condition or why he was out of the lineup. Kovalchuk led all skaters in ice-time with 28:42; Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf led his squad with 26:27. Kovalchuk led all players with six shots on goal, while Kessel led the Leafs with five; Tallinder was the only player that was +2.

Dan’s Three Stars of the Game:

#1 – Ilya Kovalchuk (NJ) – goal (30), assist (28)

#2 – Patrik Elias (NJ) – goal (20), assist (41)

#3 – Mattias Tedenby (NJ) – goal (8)

Dan Rice can be reached at drdiablo321@yahoo.com.

Kovalchuk’s OT Winner Lifts Devils Past Leafs

With one-third of the NHL season left, the New Jersey Devils are trying to pull off an improbable push for a playoff spot — the same Devils team that was once 28 points out of a postseason berth. After Thursday night’s 2-1 overtime victory in Toronto, New Jersey finds itself 13 points behind eighth-place Carolina with 27 games left in the season; they also play the Hurricanes twice over the next nine days.

Ilya Kovalchuk won the game with a brilliant rush up ice as the final seconds ticked away in overtime, his 18th goal of the season came with 24 seconds left in the hockey portion of the game.  He raced towards the net with both Maple Leaf defensemen in front of him (Dion Phaneuf and Keith Aulie) and fired a lightning-quick shot that goalie James Reimer got a piece of, but not enough to prevent the winning goal.

Both goalies were phenomenal in the game as Reimer (37 saves) and Johan Hedberg (31 saves) made key stops in limiting their opponents to one regulation goal each. Hedberg’s only mistake of the night came 5:18 into the second period when he was beaten by Nikolai Kulemin’s rising shot in front of the crease, his 21st goal of the season.

Toronto maintained the 1-0 lead until 3:23 into the third period when Dainius Zubrus deflected Mark Fayne’s long shot past an unsuspecting Reimer, after some great work by Zubrus to maintain puck possession in the offensive zone.

The win was especially special for coach Jacques Lemaire because it was the 600th of his career, a feat only accomplished by seven other bench bosses. During the postgame on MSG he seemed very happy, almost shocked, “I only heard about this last week” he joked, but the look on his face told you he was very proud of the accomplishment.

Dan’s 3 Stars of the game:
#1 — Ilya Kovalchuk (NJ) — gw goal (18): Clutch players make clutch plays.
#2 — James Reimer (Tor) — 37 saves, ot loss (1): Forget Jiggy and the Monster, this kid is the Goods.
#3 — Johan Hedberg (NJ) — 31 saves, win (8): The Moose was solid again, which Devs need in Brodeur’s abscence

Pandolfo Burns Maple Leafs with Late Goal

Here is the link to my recap of the Devils 4-3 win over the Maple Leafs on Friday night:

Pandolfo Burns Maple Leafs with Late Goal

Dan’s Three Stars of the Game:

#1 – Dean McAmmond (NJ) – goal (6), assist (7)

#2 – Jay Pandolfo (NJ) – gw goal (4)

#3 – Ilya Kovalchuk (NJ) – 2 assists (29)

tonight’s line combos/d-pairings
New Jersey:
Parise-Zajac-Rolston
Kovalchuk-Zubrus-Langenbrunner
Pandolfo-Niedermayer-Zharkov
Leblond-McAmmond-Peters

Greene-Salvador
Mottau-White
Fraser-Salmela

Toronto:
Ponikarovsky-Bozak-Kessel
Mitchell-Hanson-Stempniak
Sjostrom-Wallin-Kulemin
Rosehill-Primeau-Orr

Phaneuf-Beauchemin
Kaberle-Exelby
Schenn-Gunarsson

Trade Talk [02.03.10]

There’s one month ’til the NHL’s trading deadline and the action should be heating up as we inch closer to the league-wide roster freeze for the Winter Olympics. Already Toronto made separate deals with Anaheim & Calgary, and the Flames completed a four-player deal with the NY Rangers. Not that anyone is keeping score, but — I called Jean-Sebastien Giguere going from the Ducks to the Maple Leafs over the summer; anyways here is a few things that I think we could see transpire between today and March 3:

Last week Atlanta GM Don Waddell took in the Kings-Devils game in New Jersey and was spotted conversing with LA’s GM Dean Lombardi; would a package of Alexander Frolov, Jack Johnson & and a no. 1 pick be enough to lure All-Star sniper Ilya Kovalchuk away from Waddell’s Thrashers?

The NY Islanders placed Brendan Witt on waivers and sent Martin Biron down to the AHL for some conditioning; we could see Witt resurface with one of his old squads — the Washington Capitals — if the Isles try to bring him back through re-entry waivers. As for Biron, none of the teams in serious contention for a playoff berth is in desperate need of net help (at the moment), so i believe GM Garth Snow will wait until the deadline to see what type of value the hard-luck goaltender could bring back.

Rumors have suggested the NJ Devils are looking to add a center and/or defenseman before the deadline, with Anaheim’s Saku Koivu and Toronto’s Tomas Kaberle as possible targets. Perhaps a deal for Koivu would include a package of Jay Pandolfo & Niclas Bergfors or Bergfors and defenseman Mike Mottau. I thought Matt Stajan could have been the center that GM Lou Lamoriello was looking at, but that ended when the Leafs traded him to the Flames in a massive seven-player trade. With Kaberle, I don’t see a deal on the horizon, mainly because he has a no-trade clause in his contract and I can’t see him waiving it to come to New Jersey.

In Boston, enigmatic winger Michael Ryder is supposedly on the trading block and I think Long Island would be a perfect destination — the Isles need another goal-scoring winger and maybe they can acquire him for a minor leaguer or two.

Zajac Saves Devils After Leafs Force OT

Here is the link for my recap of the Devils 5-4 overtime win over Toronto on Friday night:

Zajac Saves Devils After Leafs Force OT

Dan’s Three Stars of the Game:

#1 – Travis Zajac (NJ) – gw/pp goal (15), 3 assists (29)

#2 – Zach Parise (NJ) – 2 goals (25), 2 assists (29)

#3 – Dainius Zubrus (NJ) – goal (3), 2 assists (7)

tonight’s line-combos/d-pairings
New Jersey:
Parise-Zajac-Zubrus
Rolston-McAmmond-Langenbrunner
Pandolfo-Niedermayer-Davis
Palmieri-Pelley-Zharkov

Greene-Salvador
C.White-Mottau
Oduya-Fraser

Toronto:
Hagman-Stajan-Ponikarovsky
Kulemin-Bozak-Kessel
Blake-Mitchell-Stempniak
Mayers-Primeau-Orr

Kaberle-I.White
Beauchemin-Gunnarsson
Schenn-Exelby