You have to feel for Phil Kessel.
The reluctant star finds himself thrust into the limelight as these playoffs progress. The bright lights and inquiring media minds who want to know only make his eyes squint and mouth utter those now familiarly bland, monotone answers to his breathless questioners.
With the Maple Leafs finding themselves a game down to a rejuvenated Bruins squad, the calls for Kessel to step it up as the Leafs premier scorer are growing. For Kessel, there’s no better time to cement his reputation as a clutch guy among Toronto fans and media than right now. It’s when the men are separated from the boys and all that stuff.
Trouble is, Phil Kessel really is more of a boy. A boy who happens to have a few extraordinary gifts of speed and a snap shot to die for.
But what he doesn’t have is the heart of a lion nor the courage of Richard III.
For Kessel, talented as he is, to suddenly overcome his arch enemy, giant Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara, is frankly too much of an ask. In Kessel’s psyche, Chara might as well be seven-foot-nine instead of the 6′-9″ he actually is given the lack of success Kessel’s had against him.
As the evidence has painfully shown, Kessel’s been a flop at trying to slay the Giant. The amped up intensity of the playoffs isn’t going to change this fact. Demanding that the Leafs’ sniper find a novel way of beating his Boston nemesis — well I wouldn’t hang my hat on it. As the expression goes, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result.
Of course it’s not insane to keep trying — what else is there? But maybe here’s where his teammates and coach can get creative and try a couple of things to get the Giant off his game to help the Leafs top scorer.
Now would be the time for someone else to rise to the challenge and try to mess with the Giant. How about a Kulemin or Komorov or maybe Fraser McLaren to distract the beast, throw him off his game a bit, soften him up so he’s not so brutal on Kessel. The Leafs have a couple of strong, capable wingers and if it means some switching to overcome an unfair matchup problem, why not try that? Could the results be worse than the past? Chara plays 30+ minutes a night. Do more things to make him feel every minute of it. Make him skate, make him bodycheck, send more bodies to his zone. Even Giants can be brought down or gotten the better of. If the Leafs can do that at least in part, then other dominoes may fall.
Sure the home team gets the last change but it may still be worth a try.
Speaking of switches, what about moving Kessel to the left wing, switching with Van Riemsdyk, just to get him away from the immediate vicinity of Chara? Kessel plays the left side on the power play effectively using that move off the half boards and firing a quick snapshot. Why not try it at even strength?
Granted, these armchair strategies are a bit radical to suggest being the playoffs and all. Zdeno Chara is only one part of a tough Bruins team who give the Leafs matchup headaches. But it may be time to throw a curve to at least give your best player some relief from a nemesis who’s owned him over the years. Such a move may be interpreted as Carlyle throwing up the white flag in the Kessel-Chara matchup but trying such an approach might just pay some rewards.