Can a player score three times in four games, continue to lead his team in scoring, and still be considered to be in a slump?
If only every team could be fortunate to boast the potency of a player like Phil Kessel in their lineup.
Yet even as Kessel scored the insurance goal – the first of two Leafs empty-netters in Toronto’s 4-1 win over Calgary on Tuesday, the flashy right-winger hasn’t appeared to be playing at his highest gear during the team’s latest homestand.
During the outing in which the home team clung to victory on the strength of goalie Jonathan Bernier, Kessel’s play continued to fuel speculation that he is at least partially injured. None of the 19,122 spectators at Air Canada Centre saw a patented coast-to-coast rush down the right wing from #81 culminating in a goal, although the Kessel-like play was in fact emulated by teammate Joffrey Lupul on the first scoring play of the game.
In the second period, what appeared to be an odd-man rush brewing for the Leafs resulted in a harmless offside when Kessel was slow – or slower than expected – to carry the puck into the Flames’ zone.
There appeared to be a wake-up call for the dormant top line of Kessel, Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk to open the third period when Kessel and Bozak combined for a 2-on-1 scoring chance that was thwarted by goaltender Jonas Hiller. But from then on the top trio, much like the rest of the squad, spent the final frame under siege in the Leafs zone.
In rare cases of Leafs puck possession, the instance was short-lived. Given the way that Kessel indifferently turned the puck over to TJ Brodie in the third period, one might assume that the Toronto winger drew the Calgary defenceman’s name in a secret Santa.
TMLfans.ca doesn’t employ any doctors. But it says here that if Kessel is indeed harbouring an injury, the recommendation to coach Randy Carlyle is to rest the sniper whose 14 goals and 28 points lead the team. Scoring is far more evenly distributed among the forwards, with players such as Peter Holland –who eventually converted the play started by Lupul’s rush – David Clarkson and Mike Santorelli all contributing to the depth.
Leafs defencemen have also found the back of the net 13 times this year. Unlike previous editions of the blue and white roster, Toronto isn’t as dependent on Kessel to score. A rested, healthy Kessel will be far more valuable during the latter part of the schedule in which Toronto will be tussling for a wild card berth.
Kessel has been a career-long streaky player. He went five games without a goal before this recent stretch of four games in which he has tallied three times.
And yet, something still looks very wrong.
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