SUNRISE, FLA – Soldiering out of the Verizon Center in Washington D.C. on Sunday evening, Phil Kessel was aghast at what had just transpired.
"I'm steaming," he told TSN.ca in a one-on-one conversation from Sunrise on Monday afternoon. "Why wouldn't you be steaming? We got shutout two games in a row."
For the second time in as many nights, the Leafs failed to score, a 2-0 loss to the Capitals just the latest gloomy decision in a thundering crash from the postseason picture. An unseemly stretch of hockey which continues to this day has seen the hockey club lose 14 of the past 16 games (2-12-2), a slide that lacks any reasonable comprehension.
Kessel says he's never seen a meltdown of this magnitude at any point in his career, a losing skid so enduring that nothing seems capable of slowing it down. He's noticeably frustrated with the tide the team has taken, unable to fathom how a group on its way to the postseason for the first time since the lockout could just drop off the face of hockey in a matter of weeks.
Like many in the Leafs dressing room, the 24-year-old isn't entirely sure what happened, how it could unravel in such a hurry. Optimism was high following a pair of shutouts over the Penguins and Senators to begin February, but the month wrapped with 10 losses in the next 12 games, a tumble steep enough to cost Ron Wilson his job. "It snowballed on us. We just somehow need to stop the bleeding in there and we didn't," Kessel said, noting a slew of early deficits and one-goal losses. "I thought we were playing good hockey and then I don't know what happened. We hit a stretch there where we can't win…It's frustrating for us just as much as for the fans to watch us not win games. We're battling, [but] we're not getting it done."
His personal rise this season is likely to be forgotten in the wreckage of the Leafs disaster. A year-long fix among the game's elite, Kessel currently sits in a tie for fifth in league scoring with 71 points, a career-best that continues to grow amid the rubble. His production rarely dipped at any point during the team's prolonged slide – he totaled six goals and 17 points in February – but often his commitment to the defensive end left the impression that he had more to give. On pace for his first 40-goal season, Kessel feels his stats almost ring hollow amid the collapse.
"I don't care if I score or get points, we don't win," he stated in some frustration. "It doesn't matter. What do you play the game for? You play to win the game. You play to win and have fun and right now nothing's happening for us."
He is unquestionably the Leafs most gifted and dynamic player, but often finds himself at odds with the leadership expected of him. Performance is ultimately how he will lead, but given the scope of his talent and clout in the dressing room, Kessel could surely demand more, both from himself and from teammates. Rarely front and centre among cameras and inquiring microphones, his distance with the media often leaves him to be portrayed as something of a mysterious star.
"You try to lead by example," he said, "but it's hard at a time like this when our team's struggling. Guys want to win and it's tough. People don't realize when you're losing it's hard on everyone. You're not in a great mood. It's not a good situation for anyone."
Randy Carlyle's arrival behind the bench is sure to impact some change on Kessel, but at what level is not entirely clear. While they may have butted heads the odd time, Wilson seemed to push the right buttons with the mercurial right winger. Carlyle will simply demand more. Specifically, he'll stress a vastly conservative and responsible defensive game, one that Kessel will have no choice but to adjust. Discontent bubbled during his early years in Boston under a similarly defensive-minded Claude Julien, but he still managed to produce what – to this day at least – remains a career-high 36 goals.
"I don't know if it's the same thing," he said of the Julien reference. "Obviously it's a different style than Ron played so it's going to take time to get used to. I guess we'll see how it goes."
Wins ultimately stand to define Kessel's perspective on matters relating to hockey and as it sits today his team has far from enough, another season just about lost.
"I don't want to lose," he concluded with some emphasis. "No one wants to lose. Why would I play the game if I'm going to lose all the time? You want to win. You play to win. People don't understand; we're playing to win. It's hard [and] it's frustrating when you're not winning."