Lightning spoil Kessel's Leaf debut
Most of the capacity crowd of 19,301 at the Air Canada Centre was anxious to watch Phil Kessel's debut in a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater, and about 50 family members and friends of Steve Stamkos were in attendance to cheer for Tampa Bay Lightning's red-hot sophomore.
But what transpired Tuesday night was a Scandinavian goaltender duel.
On one side, Finland's Antero Niittymaki made 40 saves for Tampa. On the other side, Swedish rookie Jonas Gustavsson stopped 30 of 32 shots for the Maple Leafs in an exciting 2-1 overtime victory for the Lightning on Ryan Malone's game winner.
The 19-year-old Stamkos entered the affair having scored in six consecutive games, while Kessel was performing in his first NHL game since Boston was eliminated in a seventh and deciding game against the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round of the NHL playoffs on May 14.
Kessel was acquired from Boston in a trade by the Leafs six weeks ago for the steep price of two first-round draft picks and a second-round selection. He couldn't play until Tuesday because of off-season shoulder surgery.
But there wasn't much rink rust evident in his game after the six-month layoff. He was as speedy as ever and managed to get off a team-leading 10 shots on the stingy Niittymaki. Kessel's best chance came in a late-game power play but was stoned by the glove hand of the Lightning netminder.
He also was on the doorstep in overtime when teammate John Mitchell's shot bounced off Niitymaki and hit the crossbar moments before the Malone goal.
The 22-year-old Kessel played on the right side of centre Matt Stajan and left-winger Jason Blake and saw plenty of ice time. In total, Kessel hopped over the boards for 24 shifts — 23 minutes and 50 seconds of ice time.
This was more ice time than expected, but the Leafs did have eight man-advantage situations and Kessel is expected to ignite the power play.
Kessel 'welcomed' by Ohlund
In the first period, Tampa veteran defenceman Mattias Ohlund caught Kessel with his head down on his fifth shift just inside the Lightning blue-line and hammered the Toronto forward to the ice.
Kessel went to the dressing room for repairs (he had a small cut in his mouth) but swiftly returned to the bench.
"He got me good," said Kessel of the hit. "I wasn't worried about [the shoulder], I was worried about my head."
Tampa coach Rick Tocchet had Ohlund out there on most shifts against Kessel.
"We brought him here to score, what was that?" joked Leafs coach Ron Wilson, who added that Kessel fired 19 shots at the net, but had seven blocked and missed on two other attempts.
"That's a pretty good first impression. I ended up playing him 23 minutes and change. He was sucking a little wind at the end, but after I saw what he could do, I had to put him out there," he said.
"His timing isn't exactly where he wants, but I think he'll catch on pretty quick."
Plenty has been made of the Marc Savard-Kessel partnership with the Bruins last year that resulted in a 36-goal season. Savard assisted on 22 of Kessel's goals, 17 primary assists. But Kessel has shown with other teams that he produces with other teammates.
With the U.S. developmental program, Kessel and Nathan Gerbe were a dynamic tandem. Maybe Leafs general manager Brian Burke should try to snatch the pint-sized Gerbe.
After all, he is buried in the Buffalo Sabres farm team.
Although Mitchell and Kessel looked good together in the four-on-four overtime, Wilson remarked that he will give the Blake-Stajan-Kessel combination a good look before moving in others for a try.
"[Stajan] has the tools to get the puck to him," Wilson said. "Phil has to be open on the bench and tell them when he wants to get the puck. He has to be able to communicate that."
Lecavalier strikes first
It wasn't until there only 1:26 remained in the second period before Tampa's Vincent Lecavalier, with only his second goal of the season, slapped in a juicy rebound yielded by Gustavsson off an Ohlund slapshot.
The Leafs tied the game early in the third period on the power play, when defenceman Ian White's shot changed direction off the skate of Tampa defenceman Matt Walker.
This was the Lightning's first win on the road this season, while the Leafs remain winless at home at 0-5-1. Toronto's power-play unit, second best in the league, went 1-for-8.