Leaf's Kessel hasn't hit groove yet

Leaf's Kessel hasn't hit groove yet
February 5, 2013, 5:00 pm
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Capitals forward Mike Ribeiro can only imagine the pressure that Phil Kessel must be feeling in Toronto. Kessel led Toronto in scoring in each of the last three years, but the 25-year-old is still seeking his first goal of the abbreviated 2013 NHL campaign.

“It can’t be fun,” said Ribeiro who spent parts of six seasons with the Montreal Canadiens and at times saw his game fall below expectations in a demanding market.

“You’d rather have support from people and obviously it’s hard for guys that score goals when they don’t and then it creeps into your mind… It’s hard in a market like that because people expect you to score and then when you don’t, well then it’s not a fun time.”

Kessel enters tonight’s game against the Capitals with four assists in nine games and he has yet to find the back of the net despite firing an NHL-high 40 shots on goal. 

“I don't know if he's ever gone through a drought this long,” said Capitals forward Joey Crabb, Kessel’s teammate in Toronto from 2010-12. 

“But he's a good player and he's still doing good things for their team, he's still getting points. I think he's leading the league in shots. It's not like he's not getting chances, even against [the Capitals last Thursday] he had some good chances. He's a good player.”

The nine-game goalless streak is in fact Kessel’s longest to begin a season, and the fifth longest in-season drought of his NHL career.

Not helping matters was the early season injury to linemate Joffrey Lupol (broken forearm) who will miss his seventh straight game tonight. 

“It’s a little bit in your head I think. You feel the pressure,” said Nicklas Backstrom, taken fourth overall at the 2006 NHL Draft, one spot before Kessel was taken by the Boston Bruins. 

“Obviously he’s had success before (Kessel’s 165 career goals are tops among the 2006 draft class). You just have to keep working hard and it’s going to come.”

Adding to the on-going pressure surrounding Kessel are the constant reminders of what the Maple Leafs gave up to acquire him from Boston in 2009.

When Kessel and the Bruins could not agree on a contract extension, the Bruins traded his right to the Maple Leafs in exchange for two first-round draft picks and a second-round pick.

The picks were eventually used on Tyler Seguin (2nd overall, 2010), Jared Knight (32nd overall, 2010) and defenseman Dougie Hamilton (9th overall, 2011).  

“There’s definitely pressure,” Crabb said. 

“I think there’s loads of pressure on any top-line guy that’s supposed to produce and then on top of that you play in Toronto. So he’s got a lot of pressure but I think he handles it well, he actually stays out of the media quite a bit and he’s got a pretty level head.”

Handling the pressure, Ribeiro explained, is half the battle.

“When the pressure gets to you, you start thinking too much of where to shoot rather just reacting and just shooting. The pressure of fans and media I’m sure is not easy to deal with it and I’m sure it gets talked about every day up there. It really gets to the point where you have to eliminate those people from your vision and your [mindset].

“If you care about what they say, then it begins to creep you even more. You just have to disconnect yourself from the media and those people and you just have to really focus on what you need to do.”