TORONTO – Phil Kessel couldn't help but laugh at his luck.
"I don't know what I did," he said after a second straight Leafs win, managing a hearty bit of laughter. "I must've done something. [But] it'll be alright. They'll eventually go in. And like I said, the most important thing is we're winning games."
Despite an array of chances, the Leafs star sniper remains stuck without a goal and yet, his teammates continue pick up the slack, dropping the Capitals 3-2 on Thursday night for the club's first home victory of the season.
"There's going to be stretches throughout the year where guys are going to be a little snake-bit," James van Riemsdyk said, scoring his fourth of the year on a power play. "The beauty of our team is we have a lot of depth and a lot of different guys that can score goals so there's maybe not as much pressure on one guy to carry the weight. I think we have strength in numbers here."
Youth continues to rise for the Leafs with Kessel misfiring. In addition to continued contributions from the 23-year-old van Riemsdyk, it was 25-year-old Matt Frattin rising to the occasion at the opportune moment yet again, scoring his second straight game-winner on a nifty give-and-go with 22-year-old Nazem Kadri.
Kessel's luck – or lack thereof – was almost cruel at the Air Canada Centre on this night. Be it a biting right pad stop from Michal Neuvirth, a puck hopping meanly over his stick on a 2-on-1 or a winding glove save again by Neuvirth, the 25-year-old could do nothing more to break the ice. He chipped in with an assist and was a general force throughout, however, battling for pucks, digging in physically and creating the scores of aforementioned chances.
"He's working his balls off," Cody Franson said of Kessel's 20-minute effort. "I give him a lot of credit. He's taken some heat, but give him a lot of credit he's working very hard."
"He worked his ass off tonight," van Riemsdyk agreed. "He had a lot of chances, used his speed, was shooting. It seemed like he put it everywhere but the back of the net."
Despite Kessel's unlikely empty showing in the goal department, the Leafs have managed to win four of their first seven games, especially impressive considering the recent absences of top-six forwards Joffrey Lupul (forearm) and Clarke MacArthur (finger).
1. Kessel's Dry Spell
Kessel has gone seven games without a goal to open the 2013 campaign, topping his rookie year as the longest stretch of his career to begin a season. "Obviously you might be a little discouraged [and] he might be," linemate Tyler Bozak said before the game. "But he's not worried about it. He knows he's getting his chances and he knows it's going to eventually go in. There's been some pretty sick saves on him, from [defencemen] and goalies. He'll get a lucky bounce here one of these games coming up and right after that I think the floodgates will open up for him." Randy Carlyle said Thursday morning that Kessel's 26-minute effort against the Sabres on Tuesday was the best he'd seen in terms of work ethic from him as Leafs head coach. He echoed similar sentiments after the win against Washington. "I think the last two games that Phil Kessel played, he's skated and been more active in the game from an energy standpoint, from a system standpoint ... all those things that we're asking," Carlyle said. "The goals are going to come." "What can you do really?" Kessel added. "I'm trying hard, I'm getting chances, it's just not going in."
2. Frattin, Kadri and Leo Komarov
Kadri (seven points) and Frattin (six points) are the Leafs' two unlikely scoring leaders after seven games, joined on the third unit by 26-year-old rookie Leo Komarov. "We already built pretty good chemistry," Frattin said before the game. "All smart players and we know where to find each other. Me and Leo are working the forechecks and we get in there pretty fast and use our body and Naz, that's the kind of guy you want to have the puck on your line; he creates space for everybody else and just drags guys to him." Frattin scored eight goals in 56 games as a rookie last season, already with four markers on seven shots in four games this winter. He serves himself constant reminders to remain engaged physically, a focal point of the coaching staff, both with the Leafs and Marlies. "I've still got to remind myself of that," he said. "And as soon as I get the puck I've got to get my feet moving instead of planting my feet and looking for a play. If I keep moving it gives me more time."
3. JVR in Front
Carlyle continues to hammer home the need for a Tomas Holmstrom-like presence in front of the goal from the six-foot-three van Riemsdyk, who shoveled a Kessel rebound past Neuvirth for the Leafs first goal. "One power play I thought he stepped out of the way so we put somebody else out there," Carlyle said flatly. "It's a tough area of the ice. I asked him how he liked the front of the net after he scored the goal."
4. Power play Misfires
Nearly coming back to bite the Leafs despite all-together controlling effort – Washington only had 22 shots – the Toronto power play was a momentum sapper on Thursday despite the van Riemsdyk goal. The unit misfired on seven of eight opportunities, including yet another 5-on-3. "We've got to find a way to get a couple more of those in, take advantage of all those powerplays we had," van Riemsdyk noted. "Usually when you get a lot of power plays like that in a row they're going to call some against you so you've got to get yourself that cushion there to have some room to work with." The Leafs are operating at 15 per cent on the man advantage, but have scored twice on the last 18 chances. "We're not right in sync yet," Carlyle added, "but it's not far off because we've done a lot of things as far as creating chances with it. It's just the execution is off ... it's got to get better and we'll continue to work on it."
5. Kadri at Centre
During his first three years in the organization, Kadri bounced between the wing and his natural position down the middle. It appears the back-and-forth has come to an end. Noting his impressions of the 22-year-old in various Marlies stints late last year and again this fall, Carlyle said that Kadri is simply best-suited to play centre. "To me, there was two different hockey players," Carlyle said. "I think [playing centre] bodes well for him and from my assessment of him that he was a much more effective player and he wasn't as vulnerable to some of the things that I thought wouldn't allow him to play."
Quote of the Night
"He's working his balls off."
15 shots attempts for Kessel in the win, including six that hit the net, seven that were blocked and two that missed entirely.
Stat Watch II
Kessel leads the league with 33 shots.
Minute Watch I
22:10 – Tyler Bozak. Bozak has logged 22 minutes or more in five of seven games this season.
Minute Watch II
28:36 – Dion Phaneuf. The Leaf captain ranks second in the league, averaging nearly 28 minutes per game.
Under the Radar
Recalled from the Marlies on Thursday morning, Ryan Hamilton played in his third NHL game against the Capitals, stepping in for the injured Mike Brown (shoulder strain). Hamilton's first NHL opportunity with the Leafs didn't arrive until late last year and it appears he's cleared one potential hurdle in future bids to remain. "The one thing that he's done," Carlyle said, "I think he's added another gear. And that was his big drawback when people had looked at him before and said 'Is he going to be able to play in the NHL?' and everybody said 'Well, his skating, his skating'. In the brief encounter that we had in training camp his skating was fine."
The Leafs claimed Frazer McLaren from San Jose on Thursday afternoon, a six-foot-five presence who may force Hamilton back down to the Marlies. Carlyle said "probably no" of returning the captain of the American League affiliate, but noted the presence of management in such a decision. As for McLaren, a Winnipeg native who has played in 40 NHL games, including one this season with the Sharks, Carlyle was familiar with his game from the Western Conference. "He's a George Parros type," said Carlyle, noting the stature, surprising skill set and intelligence of the 2007 seventh round pick.
The big, bad bully of the block visits the Air Canada Centre on Saturday with Zdeno Chara and the Boston Bruins taking on Kessel and the Leafs for the first time this season.