Custom Search

Attention paid to Phil Kessel a prelude to any playoff match-up

There’s little question that just getting to the playoffs would bring a huge sigh of relief—and much appreciation—from Leafs fans.

The reasons are many. Leaf supporters certainly don’t want to see the number one pick that now belongs to Boston fall into enemy hands as one of the top picks overall.

Also, a playoff spot would be something to celebrate in and of itself, something not experienced for five seasons.

Significantly, it would mean the team would be playing good hockey for the next four months, a gift in itself. Perhaps most importantly, it would hopefully bode well for the future.

Something Leafians have to come to grips with, though, is if the team ever reaches the promised land (not the Cup, just a humble playoff spot) certain realities would soon be in evidence if they got there.

That reality was foreshadowed in Boston last night, when Boston’s behemoth—the very talented defenseman Zdeno Chara, he of the many Battle of Ontario clashes in years gone by, was on the ice virtually every time Phil Kessel was in the first period.

While Claude Julien backed off that approach as the game wore on, Kessel, as Toronto’s biggest threat, will likely draw big-time attention on a regular basis if the Leafs do make a serious playoff run.

We all know that how teams defend the top players and best lines is generally handled differently than it used to be. In the 1950s, teams would place someone specifically on Rocket Richard to antagonize him and try to slow him down and get him mentally off his game. When Bobby Hull became the game’s most dangerous offensive threat in the early 60s, almost every NHL team utilized a “shadow”, someone who would all but cling to Hull and follow his every step.

Nowadays, as we know, while line match-ups are obviously a big part of team defense, coaches also tend to make sure certain defense pairs are on the ice against the other team’s best players.

The point here being that, even if the Leafs were to fight their way through the current Eastern Conference logjam and earn that precious playoff berth, they may not be able to rely on their “gunner” (Kessel) having the kind of impact we are used to seeing many nights. It goes without saying that the checking is much tighter come April, and even the best offensive teams can sometimes be shut down by a determined checking presence from the opposition.

This is not to say that Kessel can’t be an impact guy in the playoffs. He clearly has the talent to do it. It is hopeful to note that young Phil has earned a point a game in his brief 15 game NHL playoff career. But in Boston he shared the ice with a few more dangerous offensive weapons than the Leafs currently possess. That helped.

Come this April, if the Leafs are in the playoffs, the focus on Kessel will be huge.

I remember Bryan Trottier as a dominant young junior, who had outstanding early seasons in the NHL, much like Kessel. But I remember watching Trottier in those early years in the playoffs (1976 to 1979) and he struggled a bit. That changed when he had the supporting cast, the maturity and the experience to fight through the added attention to be the player he was capable of being on the big stage.

All this said, most Leaf fans would be happy to cross that bridge, if and when the team—and Kessel—both get there.

No comments:

Post a Comment