(Phil Kessel is one of two players with 33 games with a point. Can you guess who’s the other?)
Prior to this season, the output from Leafs right-winger Phil Kessel had been mediocre in the first two years he played in a Toronto uniform – good, but not great. The quest for president and general manager Brian Burke had been to find a strong centre to play with Kessel.
Few would have figured that the complementary forward that the Leafs were seeking would come not in the form of a centre – like Kessel had in Boston with Marc Savard – but a winger in Joffrey Lupul, acquired last February from Anaheim.
However at the halfway point of the NHL season, the Kessel-Lupul duo has evolved into the most lethal combination in the league, with both players sitting among the top 5 in league scoring as of games played on Sunday.
Kessel is sure to shatter his career high of 36 goals, having already netted 24 this season at the midway mark. Lupul already has more points (47) than in his previous two injury-shortened years combined.
Just as remarkable as the tandem’s boost in scoring is the consistency at which they victimize opposing goalies.
Both Kessel and Lupul have scored at least a point in 33 of 40 games this year, which tops all players in the NHL. Furthermore, they have been held pointless in the same game just five times so far this season.
Lupul provided his insight on avoiding slumps. ”I think that’s something that – earlier in my career – I struggled with a little bit was going for a stretch where things were going well, and then it would be 5 or 6 games without a point,” said Lupul. “That’s something I’ve worked on a little bit, and probably a little bit of luck in there too. But for the most part I feel I’ve played the same way, pretty much every game.”
With various injuries to Leafs centres, the pivot on the line has rotated between Tyler Bozak and Tim Connolly. While neither puts up the same numbers as their wingers, both players are quick to recognize their targets, as was the case Saturday against Detroit when Connolly found Kessel on a breakout pass that eventually led to a penalty shot and eventual goal.
“Whether it’s been Bozak or Connolly centering us, they’ve both done a great job the whole way – they’re both solid defensively, winning faceoffs and just making good plays all the way around,” said left-winger Lupul.
On the right side, the streakiness on which much of Kessel’s reputation has been built has yet to materialize in 2011-12. “Phil’s played at a high level all year. His consistency this year is one aspect of his game that’s really improved, “ said Lupul. “The thing about Phil is, he’ll be skating the puck up the ice and the other team really starts to key on him If he makes a little play to me in the middle, it seems like either me or (Connolly) have a lot of time. Teams are pretty much keying on (Kessel) first, so that definitely opens up some ice for Connolly, Bozak, or me.”
Kessel, who is quickly shaking off the ridicule that came with being the last draft pick in last season’s All-Star Game, quietly shrugged off the statistical accomplishments that have resulted from the chemistry with his linemate.
“We’re just trying to work hard and do whatever we can to win games.”
Follow TMLfans.ca on Twitter