TORONTO – Phil Kessel is looking like the franchise player the Toronto Maple Leafs thought they were acquiring back in 2009.
The red-hot forward heads into Thursday’s game against his former team as the NHL leader in goals and points after sparking the Maple Leafs to a come-from-behind 4-3 shootout victory over the Winnipeg Jets on Wednesday night.
Kessel had a goal and two assists against the Jets, but was given very little time to enjoy it before boarding a plane for Boston with his teammates. The former Bruins first-round draft pick acknowledges that games in TD Garden have been tough on him.
“It gets old when you guys ask all the time,” said Kessel. “You know, it’s a couple years ago. I don’t get jitters any more. Going back that first year I was a little nervous.
“They’re a great team and we’re going to have to battle hard to win tomorrow.”
Kessel has looked like a man possessed while helping the Leafs earn nine of a possible 10 points in the standings to start the season. He tops the NHL with seven goals and 12 points through five games.
A streaky player throughout his career, the Leafs are waiting to see if this is another streak or the beginning of a career year.
“Only time will tell if he finds a way to be more consistent,” said coach Ron Wilson. “But I don’t see any holes in his game right now. He’s backchecking, forechecking, making good decisions with the puck and staying on top of things.
“He wants the puck all the time, he’s demanding it and he’s getting it. That’s the big thing.”
About the only thing Kessel couldn’t do on Wednesday was score in the shootout, but teammates Joffrey Lupul and Matt Frattin made sure it didn’t matter by beating Ondrej Pavelec during the tiebreaker. Leafs goalie James Reimer stopped both Winnipeg attempts.
Lupul added two goals in regulation for Toronto (4-0-1) while Mark Scheifele, with his first NHL goal, Tobias Enstrom and Alexander Burmistrov replied for Winnipeg (1-3-1).
The home team put on an ugly performance through 40 minutes, registering just 12 shots while getting serenaded with boos during disorganized stretches with the man advantage.
Asked what he saw in the first two periods, Wilson replied: “Not much.”
That changed quickly with power-play goals just 27 seconds apart early in the third period. Lupul’s shot deflected off Enstrom’s stick and in at 7:28 before Kessel one-timed a Dion Phaneuf pass home to tie the game 3-3 at 7:55.
Toronto has received almost all of its offence over its first five games from the first line of Kessel, Lupul and Tyler Bozak.
“The fact of the matter is that line got the job done with different centremen at different times,” said Wilson. “Those two guys (Kessel and Lupul) are hot. We’ve got to find a way to get the Grabovski line going a little bit more here.”
It began as a promising night for Winnipeg in its first visit to a Canadian city. A number of fans turned up wearing Jets sweaters and the Leafs rolled out the welcome mat with a scoreboard tribute during a stoppage in play early in the first period. In-game announcer Andy Frost, who was born and raised in Winnipeg, voiced the minute-long video and fans responded with a standing ovation.
Shortly after, Enstrom made it 1-0 with Winnipeg’s first power-play goal of the season. Lupul tied it soon after, but Winnipeg stretched its lead to 3-1 during the middle period.
Burmistrov completed a give-and-go with former Leaf Nik Antropov at 2:27 before Scheifele scored on the power play just over five minutes later. The rookie centre was parked at the side of the goal for about 10 seconds before knocking a rebound past Reimer.
Scheifele is from nearby Kitchener, Ont., and pumped his fists as friends and family in the arena cheered loudly from the stands.
“It was definitely special to get it here in front of a bunch of people that came to the game,” he said. “But it would’ve been nicer to get the win.”
Toronto was booed off the ice after 40 minutes, but Kessel and Lupul made sure they turned to cheers by the end of the night. The Leafs felt fortunate to head off for their first road trip of the season on a winning note.
“We didn’t play well for two periods,” said Lupul. “We came back in the effort in the third period. That’s not the way you wantto win every night, but that was the way we had to get it done tonight.”
Notes: The last Leafs player to lead the NHL in scoring at the end of the year was Gordie Drillon in 1937-38 … Jets owners Mark Chipman and David Thomson attended the game … Leafs forward Colby Armstrong suffered a lower-body injury and won’t make the trip to Boston … Winnipeg scratched Ron Hainsey, Randy Jones and Tim Stapleton … Cody Franson, Colton Orr and Jay Rosehill sat out for Toronto … Announced attendance was 19,514.