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Benching Kessel sends the best message yet— to everyone, as Leafs win again

Timing is always important.  And the “benching”, if we can call it that (which I alluded to in my post after the Penguin game on Wednesday night) of Phil Kessel was perfectly timed the other night.

In the first two seasons with Wilson behind the bench, there was a lot of talk about accountability and ending the sense of entitlement. There were certainly times when Wilson sent a message— and it worked.  Players such as Matt Stajan  and Jason Blake spent time on the bench or the press box and rebounded with some strong efforts afterwards.

Last season, when Kessel first arrived, he was just coming off an injury and he was given a lot of latitude throughout the season.  This was evident as it became clear that the Leafs were going to be losing a very high draft choice (ultimately Tyler Seguin) in the Bruin deal.  So making an overt move (benching him) to send a message at any point last season to the generally more offensively-oriented Kessel was not the right time, especially when Leafs fans were already fretting about whether Kessel was enough to justify the deal.

Wednesday night was the right time.

The Leafs have started the season with three wins, and we don’t get to say that often around here.  And on that point, Wilson no doubt picked the very best time to have young Phil spend some time thinking about his effort during the Penguin game.  It was done at a time when the game was still on the line, and when the Leafs were hoping to win their first road game of the season.

Sending a message when a team is struggling can work, but sometimes it’s even better to send one when a team is already winning and playing well.  It can make it much easier to accept.  And, importantly, it reminds everyone else (including guys paid a lot less) not to take ice time for granted, and that this year, the bar is higher than it has been in recent years.  (Not that there are many guys on the roster who have been here very long.)

So, kudos to Wilson.  No big public proclamations, just some time on the bench for his best offensive player. 

We’ll see if the message sinks in long-term.  Kessel certainly had some jump Friday night, with two goals and an assist, including the overtime clincher.

 Often times, when a team has a lead, you can just feel that they are sitting back, and when the other teams scores one, the floodgates open.

I didn’t have that feeling last night, as I thought the Leafs were maintaining their pose and their skating legs for the most part and staying aggressive in the third period.  But after the Rangers made it 3-2, the Leafs had a 5-3 power-play almost mid-way through the period but didn’t create much.  The Rangers immediately scored to tie the game. But the Leafs kept skating and pushed the game to overtime.

 Speaking of benchings, Gunnarsson saw scant action as the game went on against the Rangers.  Interestingly, his ice time has decreased every game since opening night.  This is the season a lot of us are expecting Gunnarsson to take that next step, after a surpringly big jump forward last season.

It will be interesting to see if it takes some time for him to get going this season.  Or maybe expectations are a bit too high.

 I guess you’ll take the trade-off.  The Leafs didn’t allow anything when they were killing off five penalties, but they also couldn’t muster a power play goal— until the OT winner in seven chances.

The power-play will always blow hot and cold.  But if you can kill penalties consistently well, and win face-offs, which the Leafs by and large are doing, you have a much better chance for success.

  Both Giguerre and Lundqvist both made some huge stops to send the game to overtime.  If Giguerre, even when he is not on top of his game, can make big stops to save at least a point, like he did Friday night, his teammates will likely play with even more early-season confidence.

To me, the Leafs looked like the much better team on the night.

  For their part, the Rangers just don’t look like a team that can’t be beat.  By that I mean, if you look up and down their roster, they have some skill, some nice complementary players, but they are just another team—which is pretty much the way most of the Eastern Conference looks right now.

NFL-style parity has thrown its blanket over much of the East.

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