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Kessel exhales; Leafs looking to the future

After watching Stamkos last night, it’s clear the Tampa Bay organization was wise in sitting him down for a few games a year ago when he was struggling during his rookie season.

A year later, he is bigger, stronger and playing with tremendous confidence. Not every superstar junior becomes an impact player at the NHL level, but it certainly appears that young Stamkos will be the next leader in Tampa Bay, and one of the next offensive superstars of the league. Scoring 40+ goals already this season is ample evidence that he can score. If he can become an all-around player in the years to come, he may well be a ‘top 5’ guy in the entire league.

• The new “young Leafs” are showing encouraging signs, but we should remind ourselves that this was their reputation earlier this year—a hard-working team that played a lot of close games.

• You can sometimes see why Calgary soured on Phaneuf (his second period un-pressured give-away leading directly to the 2-2 goal) but I remain firmly of the view that he will be named captain this summer and will be a difference-maker in the years to come.

• Hedman’s struggles this season in Tampa Bay should remind everyone how difficult it can be to become a top defenseman in the NHL—and puts Luke Schenn’s development in perspective.

• I liked Bozak’s goal because he created his own opportunity. He pressured the puck behind the Tampa Bay net and went to open ice—and the puck found him. You also had to love his play on the overtime winner.

• I’ve got to believe Beauchemin will be better next season than he has been so far this year. At -15 on the season, he can be better.

• On the other hand, I haven’t mentioned Gunnarsson lately, and that’s probably a good thing. He is only 23, has been injured, is a rookie on a team that has struggled—and he’s still a +10, He should only get better.

• Kessel has been snake-bit a lot in the second half of the season. He went a long stretch without a goal (many good scorers go through that every year), and has missed tons of great chances. Kulemin set him up beautifully when it was 3-3 last night and Kessel couldn’t find the net, though it was a relief to see him score a beauty in OT, after not connecting on other chances in OT. He should feel a lot less pressure next season.

• I haven’t been a big Stalberg guy, but he can certainly skate. Scoring goals breeds confidence, and hopefully his break-out last night injects a dose of self-belief so he can show his skills on a regular basis. I liked the play he made in his own zone in the third period after Phaneuf was knocked off the puck. He fought for the puck and led a rush going the other way. He’s a rookie and only 24, so there is room to grow, for sure.

• Tampa Bay gambled late in overtime, going with three forwards and Lecavalier was exhausted as the only man back on the two-on-one that led to the winning goal.

• It’s funny. I love the four-on-four, but hate overtime in the regular season. I realize I’m a dinosaur on this subject. I’ve never been of the belief that a hockey game has to have a winner. I watched the game for decades before they introduced regular-season overtime, and I was perfectly fine with tie games. I loathe the shootout, as well. It’s a horrible way, to me, to decide the outcome of a hockey game. I admit I watch—no question. But I would get rid of OT and the shootout tomorrow if I could. Then, the point standings would make sense to me again.

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