By Bill Burt
---- — BOSTON – For most of the last four years it has been an unfair fight here at the T.D. Garden, sort of like Marvin Hagler against the likes of Fulgencio Obelmejias in the old Boston Garden.
The mighty and rugged Boston Bruins have represented Hagler, of course, and Phil Kessel, imitating the punching bag, a k a Obelmejias.
Kessel, one of the most skilled playmakers in the world of hockey, has been rendered useless when going against his former team, particularly here in Boston.
Kessel’s Kryptonite? The 6-foot-9, 260-pound Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara. When Kessel is on the ice, Chara is, too. That’s on purpose.
When Kessel, the leader Maple Leafs scorer the last four regular seasons (including this one), has gone against the B’s, it’s been a bunch of zeros and minuses.
Heading into last night’s game, Kessel had accumulated three goals and six assists in 23 games versus his old club. He was also a minus-21, which means he was on the ice for 21 more Bruins goals than he was for Leafs goals when the teams were playing five-on-five.
In other words, he stunk on offense and he really stunk on defense.
Even worse, in 12 games in Boston he had two power play goals and zero assists.
Well, something happened about 50 seconds into the third period of Game 2 last night. Chara whacked a slap shot from the point, which was blocked by Leafs forward Ryan Hamilton.
Kessel took a chance as Hamilton blocked it. He took off.
Center Nazem Kadri immediately snared the loose puck and saw Kessel take off. He passed it about 100 feet to the streaking Kessel, who broke in alone and snapped it through Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask’s legs.
It put the Leafs ahead, 3-1, and turned out being the play of the night and one of the biggest goals of Kessel’s career. In Boston.
“I just took off,” recalled Kessel, who is playing in his first playoff series since being traded by the Bruins in September of 2008.
“I was lucky. I shot it five-hole,” said Kessel.
This has been an interesting relationship between Boston and Kessel since the trade, which eventually netted the Bruins Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton.
Boston doesn’t like him, which is sort of funny.
Kessel survived testicular cancer in a Boston hospital as a talented teenager on the Boston Bruins.
Bruins writers voted Kessel, who might have been the most talented teenager to play for the Bruins since Ray Bourque (he scored 11 goals in 70 games), the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey after winning his cancer battle.
It was a wonderful story. With an emphasis on “was.”
Kessel had a problem that developed over the next two seasons with the Bruins.
Off the ice, he apparently didn’t have a lot of friends.
On the ice, which was a bigger deal, he didn’t like to play defense, which is an absolute no-no under coach Claude Julien, and he refrained for bodily contact, a no-no here in Boston.
With his contract expiring and expectations of having to pay him more money than he deserves, the most talented Bruin was dealt away to Toronto (he immediately signed a 5-year, $37 million contract). He probably thought it would not only make him rich but it would put his Boston experience in the back-view mirror.
Unfortunately, he would had have to move to Moscow for that to happen. The Bruins have haunted Kessel almost every day since the trade. And while Chara deserves the lion’s share of the credit for Kessel’s lack of production, the Bruins fans have made him feel very uncomfortable with loud boos every time he has touched the puck. Last year, at times Bruins fans chanted “We got Se-guin! We got Se-guin!” when he touched the puck. This year there as an addendum with Hamilton’s name added, too. Of course, there were lots and lots of boos, too.
“I just play. I don’t care,” said Kessel, who nobody believes.
But last night may have been a watershed moment. All night Kessel was switching linemates with the hope of getting some space and getting away from Chara. “Z is a great player. He’s tough to go against,” said Kessel. “We were switching quite a bit, trying to get away from Z.”
Well, after being knocked out so many times here, Kessel finally punched back.
His goal may not only have gotten that Boston monkey off his back, but it may have changed this series and reminded the Bruins about their inefficiencies this season.
“The most important this his goal put us up 3-1 and helped us win the game,” said Joffrey Lupul, who scored the first two goals for the Leafs. “But is nice for him. Maybe this gets him going.”
You can email Bill Burt at email@example.com.