On Tuesday night, Toronto Maple Leafs winger Phil Kessel scored a sensational overtime winner that encapsulated all the reasons why we watch hockey.
Kessel flew down the wing to collect a long-distance pass from linemate Tyler Bozak, stopped on a dime, then shifted nimbly past Colorado Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie before beating Avs goaltender Semyon Varlamov through the five-hole.
It was a goal of exquisite, breathtaking beauty.
This is what hockey fans want to see whenever they enter an arena, gather with friends at their favorite local watering hole or turn on the tube at home. Every time Kessel pulls on the Leafs’ famous ‘Original Six’ sweater, there’s the chance you’re going to see a moment of brilliance from number 81.
Few forwards in the league can match Kessel’s explosive skating stride, shiftiness, dangling ability, rapid-quick release and power-packed cannon shot. Kessel weaves all of these abilities into something truly magical.
Guitar experts always said when Jimi Hendrix would mess up a guitar solo, he’d quickly improvise and bend the solo into something truly original. That’s what Kessel did when scoring Tuesday night’s OT winner.
Kessel actually struggled to control the Bozak’s breakout pass, but recovered and improvised on the fly to score a goal that sent Air Canada Center into wild, frenzied celebrations.
The Madison, Wisconsin native has caught fire of late by scoring in back-t0-back games and registering five points during that span.
Ahead of Sunday’s 6-3 victory at Madison Square Garden, Kessel reportedly told MSG Network hockey analyst and former Rangers captain Dave Maloney that he’d score in response to criticisms of his early season performances.
Kessel didn’t just score that night, he also racked up two assists and tormented the Rangers with his fast skates and deft moves.
Piled on top of criticisms of Kessel’s game was a suggestion from head coach Randy Carlyle that Kessel and Bozak weren’t properly adhering to strength and conditioning schedules toward the end of training camp.
“There’s things they have to do, and it’s not always on the ice. There’s a program in place with our strength and conditioning guys,” Carlyle said of Kessel and Bozak while speaking to the Toronto Star. “When you’re injured, it doesn’t mean you have days off. You have injured days, but there is treatment and there are off-ice workouts that are to be adhered. We have to make sure they take (it) seriously.”
Of course, Carlyle’s comments were blown out of proportion as some corners of Toronto media suggested that Kessel and Bozak had been “dogging it” ahead of the new season.
Kessel’s response to the Toronto media was to “relax.”
Many great artists are underappreciated in their own time – and Kessel’s genius deserves to be truly appreciated in the present.
Enough with the ridiculing of Kessel’s less-than-athletic physique or picking apart occasional defensive zone lapses. He can play out play. On top of that, his durability has been outstanding.
Kessel has not missed a game since offseason shoulder surgery cost him the first 12 games of the 2009-10 season. As of this column, his regular season consecutive games streak has reached 368.
Miserable Leafs fans have suffered through decades of ineptitude. When Kessel laces up his skates and takes the ice, he brings hope and excitement to Leafs fans who are desperate for a winner.
He indeed lives up to the nickname of “Thrill Kessel.”