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Phil Kessel is raising his game in the playoffs

05.03.09 at 2:41 am ET
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Phil Kessel fell on his left elbow and yelped in pain during the second period of Friday night’s opener against the Carolina Hurricanes, and the collective members of Bruins Nation held their breath with more than a hint of concern.

It was simply a swollen left elbow that kept the former first-round pick out of Saturday morning practice, but coach Claude Julien assured all concerned that his young scorer would be “100 percent” for Sunday night’s Game 2. That’s good news for a hockey team that already had to make due without Kessel for 12 games missed this season due to injury and illness, but didn’t want to learn to live without their top goal-scorer in the playoffs.

While many of the eyes in the B’s/Canes series centered on Zdeno Chara and the Bruins’ handling of Carolina scorer Eric Staal, it’s just as vital that the Canes contain the growing offensive force known simply as “Phil the Thrill.” Kessel has just as many goals scored this postseason as household hockey names like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Patrick Kane, but has turned the trick in less actual playoff games.

In 9 total career playoff games, Kessel now has 12 points (8 goals, 4 assists), and is proving himself to be a 22-year-old kid that can shred opposing defenses with his speed and unpredictable shot.

“His speed alone can change games because he just backs guys off and you have to be respectful of him coming down on you (as a defenseman),” said Andrew Ference. “But the thing that he’s got in his game now is that his shot is dialed in. He’s got a good relationship going with his stick, and he knows exactly how to get it off quick and find his spots. It’s perfect for a scorer. He’s backing you off because you’ve got to respect the speed, and that’s giving him enough room to shoot.”

The game-changing, breathtaking speed is always going to be there for the youngster, and it’s one of the clear hallmarks that makes Kessel such a unique talent. Montreal never found a way to stop — or even slow down – the puck prodigy during their four-game playoff sweep, but it wasn’t always that way this season.

“It’s the time of the year where you want to play your best hockey,” said Kessel. “You always try to play your best when there’s a good challenge. Anytime you’re challenged in life you want to do your best. I don’t even watch that much hockey during the regular season, but I watch hockey at this time of year because it’s so exciting.”

There were times this year, however, when Kessel fell into predictable patterns of simply settling for time-honored moves: with his favorite curl-and-drag from the right sideboards before unloading a quick-release snap shot that goalies had come to expect. Kessel has made the adjustment, though, and his points of attack and variety of tools have greatly improved as he’s studied and broken down simple tendencies.

He’s used that knowledge to defy expectation and attack the opposition’s cage, and thing are again opening up for him all over the ice. He’s charging at the net with an enthusiasm that’s allowed him to sweep up loose pucks around the net, and he still has the “lift off leg and snap away” wrist shot that confounds goaltenders with its change-up velocity and seemingly perfect top shelf location.

“He just continues to grow as an elite player,” said Julien. “It’s about pushing yourself and we’ve been pushing him to keep getting better, and he’s taken a real good attitude this year at accepting that responsibility and that role. I think he’s had a great year. But he’s a young guy. Having a great year is one thing, but I think there is still a lot in him that with time and experience is going to make him a better player.

“Sometimes you may not see him as much and you may wonder where he may be, but he’s all of a sudden going to pull a move or score a goal that’s going to be a game-breaker,” added Julien. “It’s easy to give credit to the guys that you see that are diving in front of pucks or throwing their bodies around and showing some grit. But it also takes the other type of players too that bring something else to the table. Phil may not be the biggest or most physical player, but he’ll certainly score the big goals when you need them.”

Kessel is heading to those different areas of the ice, and he’s been getting reward for it: with five goals in his final three games of the regular season and a career-high 36 strikes in only 70 games player for the Black and Gold due to mononucleosis and a shoulder injury.

His ability to pass the puck is also growing with each game – and it’s not surprising given his skill level and the great playmaking examples of Marc Savard and David Krejci that Kessel’s had a front row seat to all season. Kessel is every bit as much the game-breaking talent as the 24-year-old wearing No. 12 for Carolina, and he’ll get every chance to prove it provided that left elbow doesn’t become a problem.

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