October 29 2013 10:45PM
Come on, Phil. Act like you've been there before.
Phil Kessel really is too good.
The glaring hole in his game is on defence. He has trouble recovering the puck, but once he gets it, he's unstoppable at this point. Kessel is a step faster than anybody else on the ice. Kessel has a little more awareness than anybody else on the ice. He thinks a little quicker. He is known for his goal-scoring, but he's almost as every bit a playmaker. He can shoot from any angle, from any speed.
The Edmonton Oilers traded away Ryan Smyth at the 2007 trading deadline, in the hopes of finding the next superstar. One played at Rexall Place on Tuesday night in Edmonton, but he wasn't Edmonton's. Kessel scored twice and had two helpers in a 4-0 win by the Leafs over the Oilers.
Right off the bat, we saw Kessel's speed and awareness. After recovering the puck in his own zone just 57 seconds into the game, Kessel put the puck safely back to his defenceman Cody Franson, looked at the ice ahead of him, like a poker player surveying the table after a deal trying to spot the sucker. Just watch him:
Just watch him on this play after giving the puck up. The rookie, Nail Yakupov, probably hasn't weighed the possibilities of what might happen if the Oilers lose the puck battle on the far boards, but Kessel has. As soon as Mason Raymond chips it forward, it's too late. Kessel's already behind Yakupov. From the time he gives the puck up to Franson, Kessel basically skates in a straight line from there to where he eventually scored the first goal of the game, varying only his speed down the ice.
It's also a great battle won by Nazem Kadri against Justin Schultz, and it's great to see Kessel play with a centreman that can win those types of battles and keep control of the puck with it. The move by Kessel past Richard Bachman is elementary—as soon as Kessel's in the slot, you know what's coming. 1-0 Toronto.
The rest of the first period belonged to James Reimer. Reimer made a couple of big stops in the first, although created some hairy situations with puck-control and rebounding. Stuff he's criticized for, but it rarely does lead to chances like that. As long as he recovered, fine. Reimer stopped 14 shots in the first, but the Leafs offence did very well that period, shooting 12 at Bachman.
In the second period, very early on it was another odd-man rush (Edmonton is not very good at defending against odd-man rushes. An Oilers defenceman again is pinching, and look at the purpose in Kessel's stride once he notices. He's at the red line before James van Riemsdyk even hits the Leafs blue line, giving Kessel ample time to cross over to the other side of the ice, wait for help, and draw the defenceman Anton Belov over:
It's not even fair.
Third goal is a standard zone entry. Kessel brings it in, and rather than chipping it in deep as many players would do in the situation, he waits for van Riemsdyk to get open along the far boards. When the puck is loose, Kessel is the first one to it. When the puck is loose again, Kessel is again the first one to it, and rips an incredible shot upstairs from a ridiculous angle:
Rest of the Leafs period appeared to mostly be controlled by the Leafs, but the shot attempt chart at Extra Skater showed that the Leafs won out by just a very slim margin. The Leafs took 15 unblocked shots and the Oilers had 13. The difference to that point may have been James Reimer. A couple of Edmonton bloggers who count scoring chances had the overall scoring chances at even: Dennis King had them 12-12 and Jonathan Willis had them 11-11. In an even game, it's important to have a good goaltender.
Third period, the Leafs struck again. Initially it looked like Morgan Rielly's goal, but Sportsnet Edmonton showed the overhead angle that quite clearly shows the puck went off of Nazem Kadri's skate and above Bachman's pad. The zone entry here is actually credited to Carter Ashton, who chipped it in so he could change on the fly.
Should of* passed to Kessel.
Instead, Kadri comes in with speed and forces Jeff Petry to make a bad play. Van Riemsdyk picks up the loose puck, passes it to Kessel and Kessel—and I actually timed this—goes from turning around to putting a PERFECT tip pass right onto Rielly's stick in exactly 0.7 seconds:
Anyway, shame it wasn't Rielly's goal, but when the puck hit Kadri's skate, the puck clearly changed course and elevated. If Kadri doesn't hit it, the puck may not even go in the net, or it's blocked by Petry, or some other thing silly. A lot of goals are the result of silly and unusual things that happen around the net.
The other goals that happen in this sport happen because Phil Kessel is a God.
WHY THE LEAFS WON
Well, they're probably a better team than the Edmonton Oilers, which helps. The Oilers were playing their third string goalie, which helps, and the Oilers were without the only guy on the ice that may develop into something even close to what Kessel is right now.
Reimer made a couple of extra saves from the start of the game until the Leafs took a commanding 4-0 lead. The game was even at that point. Score effects kicked in there, and I'm sure we'll hear people on the radio talking about the Leafs winning despite giving up X shots again, but on Tuesday the shot count was mostly because of score effects. The Leafs sat back and the Oilers pressed pretty hard, but Reimer held on for the shutout bid.
Another thing I quite liked was that the Leafs stayed out of the box against a team that's taken a lot of shots on the powerplay to start the season. It was a pretty dangerous two minutes, with the Oilers taking five shots, but we only saw them once.
The individual Corsi numbers for this game are going to be out of whack since the game was out of reach for the Oilers quite early. Still, Paul Ranger did pretty well in this measure, at +14 on-ice attempts for and -15 on-ice attempts against, for a nice round minus-1. He also played a team-high 22:15 and a lot of those minutes came in the third, when the Oilers kept throwing pucks at the net. The one Leaf that wasn't a negative? David Clarkson, on for +16 for and -16 against.
- The Kadri-Kessel-JvR line scored all four goals against Sam Gagner and Nail Yakupov, who Eakins matched up against the Leafs top line for over 9 minutes. Bit of an odd call on his part—Yak has generally been kept to the offensive side of the ice, and neither him nor Jordan Eberle, the third man on the trio—are good enough to shut down Kessel from the wing. I thought for sure that Eakins would either ignore the matchup or put a combination of Boyd Gordon and Ales Hemsky on the ice against the Leafs big line.
- Instead, Boyd Gordon spent his time holding Joffrey Lupul, Jay McClement and Carter Ashton to five shots on goal. Win?
- David Perron announced as a late scratch, so the Oilers dressed seven defencemen.
- At one point in the third period, Joe Bowen called James Reimer the "ReimMinister of Defence" which sounds like "Prime Minister of Defence". It would be a great nickname is there actually was such a thing as a "Prime Minister of Defence", but evidently Joe Bowen has never taken a civics class.
- Despite the shutout, I'd roll with Jonathan Bernier Wednesday night against Calgary. Sure, Reimer is rolling right now, but "hot streaks" are illusory.
*I know. That's the joke.