EDMONTON – The mandate is pretty simple when Phil Kessel storms into the kind of zone he currently occupies.
“Just give him the puck whenever you can,” said James van Riemsdyk after the latest Leafs win in Edmonton on Tuesday night. “That's pretty much what everyone tries to do out there because it seems like everything he touches is going in the net.”
Kessel scored for the fourth consecutive game, burying a pair against the Oilers while also adding two assists in a 4-0 victory. The 26-year-old has tallied seven goals on 13 shots in the recent four-game span, now tied for second in league scoring with 18 points.
“He puts himself in a good position offensively,” van Riemsdyk said, “and he's been able to capitalize on a lot of those chances and create a lot of offence.”
It took only 68 seconds for the first puck to find twine at Rexall Place.
Joined at the hip by Nazem Kadri for the second straight game, Kessel burst beyond the Oilers defence, taking a soft dish from his 23-year-old teammate before beating the helpless Richard Bachman five-hole.
Setting up van Riemsdyk for his sixth of the year early in the second, Kessel tallied his second of the evening a few minutes later. It was arguably the prettiest of his nine markers so far this season. Hovering to the right of Bachman on the goal-line, Kessel quickly snatched the puck off the end-boards and fired it under the bar.
“That's quick hands,” said Randy Carlyle of the effort. “And we all know he has quick hands. If you give him an open net his eyes get a little bit wider I'm sure.”
Kessel's big night capped the second straight win for the Eastern Conference-leading Leafs (9-4-0) and first of a three-game road trip through Western Canada. “I'm getting a couple good bounces right now, some good passes,” said Kessel modestly after the four-point night. “I'm fortunate right now.”
James Reimer stopped every one of the 43 shots he faced from the Edmonton attack for his first shutout of the season. The 25-year-old has turned aside 79 of 80 shots in the past two games after a 36-save outing in a win over Pittsburgh on Saturday. Improving to 4-0-0 on the season, he now sits second among qualifying goaltenders with a .949 save percentage. “Our whole team did a great job of eliminating second chances when I lost the rebounds out there,” he said after another busy night.
2. Compliments to Kadri
Kadri had another fine evening playing with Kessel and van Riemsdyk. Notching the game-winning goal in victory over the Penguins three nights earlier, Kadri had a goal and two assists against the Oilers. “He sees the ice really well and has really good offensive instincts out there,” said van Riemsdyk of Kadri, who played 16-plus minutes and has 12 points this season.
Stepping in for the injured Tyler Bozak alongside two of the Leafs top snipers, Kadri has made the most of his opportunity thus far. His shifty, unpredictable attack has proved a seamless fit in a prominent role.
“Nazzie's a guy that enjoys the spotlight,” Carlyle said prior to the game. “He enjoys talking to [the media]. [But] he backs up what he says. He's not one of those guys that goes out there and makes statements that he's not prepared to go out and try and back up. You've got to love that in a player because he wants more. That's what separates good players from great players is they can continually go and grow into the game and grow into a larger role as they get more mature and more games under their belt.”
3. Change in Direction
One subtle adjustment Carlyle has asked Kadri to make relates to the direction he moves on the ice. “He's a little bit of an east-west player,” said Carlyle on Tuesday morning. “The reason we're trying to get him away from that is because in today's NHL it's a lot about back-side pressure.”
“There [are] times where you can go east-west – we understand that – but we just want him to focus on playing north-south as much as possible. Very talented player, can read the ice well, can make plays, has that scoring knack – he's got a lot of things going for him.”
4. Lupul Plays through Pain
Joffrey Lupul wasn't about to let Grandma down. Sidelined for two games with a bone bruise (foot), Lupul returned to the lineup against the Oilers, totaling 16 minutes alongside Jay McClement and Carter Ashton.
An Edmonton native, Lupul visited with his grandmother on Monday evening. Rather than fly to Mexico for a family wedding she chose to remain in town for an opportunity to watch Lupul play. “That made me feel like I should probably give it my best effort to play tonight,” the 30-year-old said prior to the game.
Lupul practiced on Monday afternoon and skated with the team on Tuesday morning, never quite feeling 100 per cent. He lacked explosion and wasn't able to push off the foot comfortably. “It's painful,” he said, “but just as long as you can get in the skate and have the strength and be able to tolerate [the pain], it's something you're able to play through without making it too much worse.”
Tuesday marked the 12th time in 13 games that the Leafs have yielded 30 shots or more. Edmonton fired 43 shots at Reimer, including 19 in a third frame dominated by the home side.
“One of the things that we have to do a better job of is communicating,” said Cody Franson earlier this week. “Last year, I think that's one of the areas that we were much better at is communicating. I'd go back for a puck and I'd have somebody telling me what was coming, where I could go with it … This year it's kind of quiet.”
7 – Goals for Phil Kessel in the last four games.
4 – Consecutive games with a goal for Kessel.
7 – Points in the last four games for James van Riemsdyk.
12 – Games this season that the Leafs have allowed 30 shots or more.
.949 – Save percentage for James Reimer this season, second among qualifying goaltenders.
39 per cent – Leafs on the draw against the Oilers.
18.4 – Shooting percentage for Kessel after 13 games.
43-26 - Shot advantage for the Oilers on Tuesday night.
Special Teams Capsule
Quote of the Night
“Winning covers all sins. It's hard to criticize a win, but we know in here that we can play better.”
- James Reimer on his team's performance this season.
The Leafs visit the surprising Calgary Flames on Wednesday night.