TORONTO -- Phil Kessel has been a picture of frustration at times this season.
Sometimes he has slammed a stick on the ice or against the glass after he muffed a golden opportunity to score. Other times television cameras have caught him shaking his head on the bench after another vexing shift. There also has been the old head buried in his hands moments after a near miss.
But Kessel was all smiles at the Air Canada Centre on Monday evening. Not only did his Toronto Maple Leafs check in with an important 4-3 victory to stop the hard-charging New York Rangers, Kessel also snapped a nine-game goal-less drought with two big goals, including the game winner, and he added an assist.
"It's about time," said the reluctant Maple Leafs star.
This was a game that could have slipped away from the Maple Leafs. They allowed a 3-1 advantage turn into a 3-3 tie when the Rangers scored twice in the opening nine minutes of the third period. But then Kessel and his linemates, Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk went to work on the next shift.
Bozak slid a pass to a cutting Kessel, who popped in his own rebound for a one-goal lead 39 seconds after the Rangers tied the game. From that moment on the Maple Leafs played solid defensive hockey and were fundamentally sound in dumping the puck out of their zone to close the deal.
Another big victory for this improving club, its fifth in six games, and a step closer to clinching their first playoff spot since 2004. Toronto has moved eight points clear of the ninth-place New Jersey Devils with nine games remaining.
"It was a huge game for us," said newcomer Ryan O'Byrne, who played his first game in a Maple Leafs sweater alongside his old Colorado Avalanche defence partner John-Michael Liles.
"The Rangers are obviously a team that is chasing us. To put this one behind us feels good."
O'Byrne felt right at home in his first game with the Maple Leafs, jumping into the rush and converting Nazem Kadri's pass on a two-on-one break for his fifth goal in 301 career NHL games.
"We unleashed him tonight," quipped Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle, whose team is now 11-3-4 in one-goal games this season.
The Toronto teams from the past seven playoff-less seasons may have frittered away a game like this after it surrendered a two-goal lead in the third period. But this is a resilient bunch, including Kessel.
Some followers of the Maple Leafs may be concerned that his goal scoring has dipped this season. He has followed up his four previous seasons of 36, 30, 32 and a career-high of 37 last year with only 12 goals and 38 points in 39 games during this lockout shortened season.
But this isn't the free-wheeling, irresponsible teams of Ron Wilson anymore. Carlyle wants his team to keep the puck in the offensive zone for extended times. Sure it's exciting to score off the rush, but sometimes misses result in chances the other way.
So Carlyle has preached cycling the puck. Kessel has been forced to adapt and he has found other ways to produce. He has helped the Maple Leafs with his playmaking ability.
"He still gets his chances," Carlyle said. "He's [almost] a point a game guy and we're talking about his lack of offence. Any good player in the game would take a point a game."
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