TORONTO – He deftly bounced the Tyler Bozak feed off his left skate and onto the blade of his stick before beating a flabbergasted Craig Anderson with the eventual game-winner, and third goal of yet another scorching night.
It was the summation of the fifth career hat trick and fifth career 30-goal season for Phil Kessel – he also added an assist – whose scorching play continues to lead a burning Leafs run, one that reached nine wins in 11 games at the ACC on Saturday night.
“It's fun to watch,” Nazem Kadri said of Kessel's play after a 6-3 win over Ottawa, the 23-year-old catching fire himself in recent weeks. “He's making plays out there left, right and centre so we'll just keep letting him do what he does.”
Kessel has mesmerized with his electric production amid the Leafs charge – which has them three points back of Tampa for second in the Atlantic division – totaling 10 goals and 23 points in the past 12 games. He has vaulted into fourth in league scoring with 61 points, now trailing only Alex Ovechkin with 30 goals – the fourth time he's reached that mark in five seasons with the Leafs, the lockout-shortened 48-game season the lone exception.
The 26-year-old, set to join Team USA for the second time at the upcoming Olympics in Sochi, appears well on his way to eclipsing a career-high of 37 markers and could very well challenge the 40-goal plateau for the first time.
“It's hard to really put a limit on him,” said Bozak, who had a goal and an assist and now has 29 points in 33 games this season. “He can get so streaky. Three goals tonight, who knows next game. You never know with him. I definitely wouldn't doubt him getting 40 goals by any means.”
Kessel is on pace for 43 goals and 88 points, both of which would prove career-highs.
Toronto is 16-3-3 when he scores this season and 26-6-4 when he records a point.
1. Kessel vs. Ottawa
With their third win in three tries against the Senators this season, the Leafs have now beaten their Ontario rival nine times in the past 10 meetings.
Much of that success is owed to their leading scorer, who toys with Ottawa like no other. Kessel has 18 goals and 35 points versus the Senators in 25 games as a Leaf and more career goals (25) and points (46) against them than any other team.
2. Kessel's All-Around Game
Though his performance is aptly judged on the level of offence he produces, Kessel's all-around efforts and competitiveness have notably risen during the Leafs sizzling run, which sees them with 66 points on the year.
Pointing first to the deadly shot and skating ability of his teammate, Joffrey Lupul observed that “you know when [Kessel's] really playing well because of how he's competing on pucks down-low in the offensive end – turning his back, protecting the puck – and he's been doing that for a while now. It makes him really effective down there.”
Added Randy Carlyle: “He's been classified as this one type of player and we think that he's got more of an all-around ability too because he can distribute the puck, he can pass the puck, he can find people, he can do a lot more things than just shoot.”
Kessel has 13 assists during the 12-game run.
3. Secondary Hot Streak
Kadri's hot streak also kept marching on against the Senators. The 23-year-old set up Lupul for the Leafs second goal – which erased a 2-0 deficit – infuriating the Ottawa bench as he did so.
Aggressive on the forecheck, Kadri connected with rookie defender Cody Ceci from behind before digging out the puck and feeding his teammate, who was all alone parked in front. The visitors believed a penalty should have been called on the hit from behind and the goal waved off.
“I think he turned just to try and give himself a little more room,” Kadri said of Ceci. “At that point I'm just fully committed to hit and I just finished my check. To be honest, I did let up a little bit and the puck was laying there and I just put it in front.”
Kadri, who played over 23 minutes (nearing a season-high), also added an empty-netter and has 14 points in the past nine games. He is up to 40 points in 53 games this season.
4. Back on Track
In a stretch of 20 games between November and December, Joffrey Lupul failed to find the score-sheet 16 times, producing points (10) in just four games.
Bouncing between left and right wing, Lupul played with a rotating cast of centres that included everyone from Jay McClement to James van Riemsdyk to Peter Holland and Trevor Smith. “You would like to stay on one line the entire year because that means, for me you're staying healthy first of all, and having success with your linemates,” the 30-year-old told the Leaf Report late last month. “But we've had so many guys in and out of the lineup – myself included, Clarkson, Kulemin, Bozak, everyone's been out – there's been nothing really set in stone other than Phil and JVR together, that's been pretty much the only thing.”
Entrenched with the same linemates – Nik Kulemin and Nazem Kadri – for the past eight games, while back at his preferred left wing, Lupul is finding a more consistent offensive touch. He scored his 17th goal against the Senators and now has eight points in the past eight games, totaling 33 points in 48 games this season.
“He's a different player on the left side,” said Carlyle.
5. Rielly's Improvement
Questioned on where he had improved most from the start of his first full NHL training camp, 19-year-old Morgan Rielly pointed to the defensive end.
“I'd like to think there are a few things I've improved on,” he told the Leaf Report. “I would say playing defence in my own end. I think that's an area of the game that as a team we've been trying to improve. I think as we kept practicing that and keep talking about it I think that I've been able to improve at that. But I think I can keep working at it.”
More specifically, Rielly said he's improved in his ability to close out on opposing forwards, sealing them against the glass and thus more quickly erasing offensive opportunities.
“Just trying to end plays,” he said. “I think that in the past I was just trying to keep them outside. I was a bit too cautious. I think I'll get stronger at just closing in on them and just trying to end the play.”
Now paired with Tim Gleason, Rielly's defensive assignments are getting tougher and included Ottawa captain Jason Spezza on Saturday evening.
23 – Points for Phil Kessel in the past 12 games, totaling 10 goals in that span.
14 – Points in the past nine games for Nazem Kadri.
8 – Times in the past nine games that Kadri has registered at least a point.
6 – Consecutive wins for the Leafs at home, the first time they've accomplished that feat since Mar.6 – Apr. 7, 2007 (9-game streak).
26 – Power-play goals for the Leafs at home this season, most in the NHL.
16-3-3 – Leafs record this season when Kessel scores a goal.
18 – Goals for Kessel in 25 career games as a Leaf against Ottawa.
3:43 – Ice-time for Greg McKegg in his NHL debut.
10-10 – Toronto penalty kill in the past three games.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 22.7% (3rd)
Season: 78% (28th)
Quote of the Night I
“It's a new one for me. To me, it's crazy. A guy wears a new pair of skates in the morning, plays the game that night and the next morning he's got lace bite. Go figure. I'm at a loss to explain it.”
-Randy Carlyle, on the injury which kept Peter Holland out of Saturday's lineup.
Quote of the Night II
“He's talking. Four points and he talks.”
-Tyler Bozak, upon seeing the media-relunctant Phil Kessel speaking with reporters.
The Leafs head south, visiting the Panthers in Sunrise on Tuesday before taking on the Lightning in Tampa on Thursday.