Phil Kessel's goal in Winnipeg last night - late in the game, late in the season for his first - didn't just give the Toronto Maple Leafs a win. It gave them, and their fans, a Zamboni-load of hope and the knowledge that the Leafs are contenders.
In game 11, one game shy of a quarter of the way through this lock-out-shortened season, Kessel finally popped one, a great goal. It came not long after he had a near-empty net gimme skip past his stick but this one was no gimme, he took a drop pass from Tyler Bozak and, using a defenceman as a screen, fired a hard wrist-shot past the glove of Ondrej Pavelec. The goal came at 15:52 of the third and gave the Leafs a 3-2 lead and that's how it ended.
Maple Leafs top scorers were silent
You cannot win without your top scorer in the NHL, let alone your top two scorers, and both of the Leafs top scorers from last season had been silent. Joffrey Lupul, last year's number two (25-42-67 in 66 games), is out up to six weeks after fracturing his forearm in Pittsburgh Jan. 23; he didn't score in the 3 games he played. Meanwhile, before the Winnipeg game, last season's top scorer, Kessel (37-45-82 in 82 games) had been out, too - out of goals.
He's known for being a streaky scorer - he's gone double figures in games without scoring more than once and started last season with 9 in the first 9 games - but Kessel's drought this time had to have gotten into his head, his teammates heads, that of the coaching staff and fans. But that's over now and if he gets close to last season's number (pro-rated for a shortened schedule) the playoffs begin to look positively possible.
Phil Kessel plus Leafs secondary scorers
After all, with Kessel scoring, and the newly-found secondary scoring (Nazem Kadri, James van Riemsdyk, Matt Frattin) and a defence that's holding its own, and with Dave Nonis making the right choice in not giving up assets for Roberto Luongo (the resurgent James Reimer is 4-3, 2.61 GAA and a .919 SV. PCT.), the Leafs will be a force. After two straight road wins they're already over .500 at 6-5, all of that coming without, except for last night, their two top scorers putting the puck in the net.
It's still somewhat early yet, sure, but the odds of the Leafs breaking their seven season Stanley Cup playoff drought are a lot better now that Kessel is back and if he gets close to last season's 37, count the Toronto Maple Leafs in.
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