TORONTO – A fit Phil Kessel makes the Toronto Maple Leafs’ best player more dangerous from start to finish.
Playing the first pre-season game of his Leafs career, Kessel scored a goal to help key a 4-1 Toronto victory over the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday night at Air Canada Center.
After being acquired from the Boston Bruins just over one year ago, Kessel didn’t see any game action with the Leafs last season until early November as he recovered from off-season shoulder surgery.
This summer, Kessel could focus on improving his fitness level instead of worrying about a wounded wing and the evidence of that work is already visible to coach Ron Wilson.
“What you see is, he’s faster longer,” Wilson said. “I don’t necessarily think he’s quicker. Last year he showed lots of flashes, but he couldn’t sustain it for a whole game. I think now, with all the training he did this summer, you just see it lasts longer. In the third period he’s just as fast as he is in the first period.”
Kessel said he’s fielded numerous questions about increased foot speed, but swears he’s just doing what he’s always done one the ice. He did note, however, that he’s happy to be playing out of the gate this time around, especially after being able to workout all summer.
“It’s nice to get your feet under you, have a real training camp and get ready for the year,” said Kessel, who turns 23 just days before the regular season starts.
Toronto iced a much more NHL-ready squad one night after being drubbed 5-0 by its provincial rivals.
Kessel’s goal—the kind of quick, low snapshot Leaf fans have grown accustomed to seeing from the sniper—came during a five-on-three man advantage and was one of three power-play goals Toronto notched in the first period, with Nikolai Kulemin and Luca Caputi getting the others.
That man-advantage success is heartening news for the Leafs, even at this early juncture, because after finishing with the worst power-play unit last season Toronto failed to convert on eight opportunities on Tuesday.
“Little bit closer to what I would hope our power play would look like,” Wilson said.
While Kessel’s tally against Senators goalie Brian Elliot was, as Wilson put it, “a goal only Phil’s going to score,” the other two were the result of Kulemin and Caputi driving hard to the net.
Kulemin is part of a top trio that absolutely must score for the Leafs to experience any success. Caputi, acquired from Pittsburgh at last year’s trade deadline for Alexei Ponikarovsky, showed exactly the kind of gritty game that could vault him up the depth chart of a team that will take goals anyway it can get them.
“It’s no secret, that’s what I do,” said Caputi, who turns 22 on the first day of October. “Get pucks deep, work down low and then I go to the net and look for rebounds. It just so happened it worked out tonight and I’m looking forward to creating more opportunities like that.”
He also flashed some skill in the second period, setting up Mikhail Grabovski for the Leafs final goal with a nice pass to the front of the net from behind the goal-line.
“Luca had a really good game,” Wilson said.
Nick Foligno scored his second goal in as many pre-season games for Ottawa, which once again iced a team without mainstays Jason Spezza, Chris Phillips and captain Daniel Alfredsson.
Prominent Toronto scratches included goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere, captain Dion Phaneuf and blue-liner Tomas Kaberle.
James Reimer played the first half of the game for the Leafs, while Ben Scrivens didn’t allow a goal in the second half. Elliot played the entire game in the Senators’ crease and faced 30 Toronto shots.
Notes: Free agent pick-up Clarke MacArthur registered an assist in his first game wearing a Leafs sweater. . . The Leafs had five power play chances in the first period alone. . . The most vibrant crowd reaction not linked to a Leafs goal came in the first period when Ottawa tough guy Francis Lessard took a healthy run at Mike Komisarek. The big Leafs defenceman saw the hit coming, slightly side-stepped it and gave a little shove to Lessard, who wound up spilling right over the boards between the benches where TSN analyst Pierre McGuire was providing colour commentary from ice level. . . The Leafs travel to London to face the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday, while the Sens play Friday night in Montreal.