TORONTO – Some 13 minutes into his Toronto Maple Leafs debut, it looked like Phil Kessel might be headed right back onto the injured list.
Zipping through the neutral zone, in and around opponents, the speedy 22-year-old made one cut too many and suddenly met Tampa Bay Lightning defenceman Mattias Ohlund, who just clobbered him. “I don’t remember (ever) getting hit like that,” Kessel would admit sheepishly in the locker-room afterwards.
That the five-foot-11, 180-pound waterbug picked himself up, didn’t miss a shift and continued to dominate offers the Maple Leafs some reason for optimism after a 2-1 overtime loss Tuesday night, in which they once again played well enough win, but didn’t.
Kessel was all over the ice in his 23 minutes 50 seconds of playing time, sending 10 shots at goal. He also chipped the rebound of a great John Mitchell scoring chance off the crossbar not long before Ryan Malone knocked a bouncing puck through Jonas Gustavsson at 2:21 of the extra frame. The goal stood up after a video review to ensure the net hadn’t come off.
With some better luck, it would have been the Maple Leafs (1-7-5) celebrating their first win at home, not lamenting a fourth straight loss in extra time.
“We have to persevere, we can’t change what we’re doing because we’re right there knocking on the door,” said head coach Ron Wilson. “We’ve just got to find a way to knock the door completely down.”
The Maple Leafs trailed 1-0 when Ian White scored at 5:04 of the third period, his shot from the slot slipping through Antero Niittymaki on a power play. Red hot with the extra man last week, Toronto wasted its first six opportunities, including a two-man edge for 49 seconds early in the second, and another in the dying minutes.
Niittymaki turned aside chance after chance while Vincent Lecavalier opened the scoring for the Lightning (5-4-4), who won their first road game of the season (1-4-1).
“We really met the challenge tonight,” said head coach Rick Tocchet. “We killed five, six penalties in a row. Guys really willed (the win) and obviously Nittymaki played unbelievable for us.”
No one was turned aside more often than Kessel, who apart from his 10 shots on goal had seven more blocked and missed the net with two others. He got a loud ovation each time he touched the puck and often looked dangerous once it was on his stick, seemingly no worse for the wear after absorbing the clean shot from Ohlund.
“When he came back (to the bench) he said that’s the hardest he’s ever been hit in this league,” said Wilson. “You could kind of see it coming, he was dancing through a minefield … You’ve got to give him a double thumbs up for taking a hit like that, a massive hit and coming back and still being a dominant player every shift.”
Said Kessel: “I put myself in a bad situation to tell you the truth, I shouldn’t have done that. Clean hit, he got me good.”
The hit was unnerving for a crowd of 19,301 eager to watch Kessel play his first game for the Maple Leafs after being acquired in a September trade with Boston for two first-round picks and a second-round selection. He had been sidelined while recovering from off-season shoulder surgery.
“It was fine,” Kessel said of his shoulder. “I was worried about my head.”
As impressive as he was, it was the slumping Lecavalier who opened the scoring.
Gustavsson, brilliant to that point, played a puck that might have been icing behind his goal and fired it into the neutral zone, where Ohlund picked it off. The Swedish defenceman charged in and fired a slapshot that was kicked out by Gustavsson right to Lecavalier, who fired the rebound into the empty net at 18:34 of the middle period for his second of the season.
The timing could not have been better for the Tampa Bay captain, who is off to a shockingly poor start but showed some needed flashes of his old brilliance with the entire Canadian Olympic team brain trust in attendance.
They were in town to also take a long look at young Steven Stamkos, who has 11 goals and five assists in 13 games, but he wasn’t especially noticeable. Martin St. Louis would also have been on Team Canada’s radar screen.
Kessel, a candidate for the U.S. Olympic team, was plagued by understandable signs of rust, but looked strong on the puck and showed no fear going into the corners when he had to.
“I had a ton of chances let me tell you,” said Kessel. “I’ve got to find some way to get some of those to go in. First game, got to get better. My job on this team is to score goals and I’ve got to start doing that.”
After Ohlund decked him, linemate Matt Stajan jumped to his defence and earned a double-minor for roughing. Kessel went straight to the dressing room but was just returning to the Maple Leafs bench a minute and a half later when Lightning defenceman Lukas Krajicek brought down Niklas Hagman in front of the Tampa Bay net.
Hagman got up, dropped his gloves and went right after Krajicek to earn the first fighting major of his eight-year career.
Notes: With his fighting major, Hagman now has nine penalty minutes this season. He had four all of the last campaign. … Kessel, who signed a US$27-million, five-year deal, after he was acquired, took Jiri Tlusty’s spot in the lineup. Tlusty was returned to the AHL Marlies on Monday. … Forwards Jamal Mayers and Jay Rosehill and defenceman Jeff Finger were healthy scratches for the Maple Leafs, while defencemen Kurtis Foster, Matt Smaby and Paul Ranger were the Lightning’s scratches. … The Maple Leafs surrendered the first goal for the 12th time in 13 games.