Leafs duo drawing attention 0
Such is life in the NHL for the Maple Leafs' dynamic duo when the opposition knows exactly what you're capable of. (REUTERS/Rick Wilking)
Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul are finding it more and more difficult to do their jobs.
"Yeah, actually, it has become harder as the year progresses to get things going," Kessel said on Thursday. "We're trying to find ways around that. It has been tougher than it was at the start of the season."
Such is life in the National Hockey League for the Maple Leafs' dynamic duo when the opposition knows exactly what you're capable of. It couldn't have been more clear on Wednesday night, when New York Rangers coach John Tortorella, in the first episode of HBO's 24/7 series chronicling the buildup to the Winter Classic between the Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers, told his players that Kessel is "a good player. But don't s--- your pants on him."
Said Leafs coach Ron Wilson, who didn't watch the show: "I wouldn't, probably, term it just like Torts, but I could understand what he was saying, because Phil was flying that game (on Dec. 6) and their defence was backing off."
With 70 points between them heading into Buffalo to play the Sabres on Friday night - Kessel was second in the NHL with 36 points (18 goals and 18 assists) and Lupul fourth with 34 (13 goals and 21 assists) - there has been no more productive twosome in the league through two months.
Other clubs have figured out that if they have any hope of stopping the Leafs, Kessel and Lupul and the centre on their line, Tyler Bozak, must be rendered ineffective.
"We're going to get more attention, especially on the road," Lupul said. "You have to look at it as a challenge. It makes it that much more fun and gets you up to play the game and compete against the other team's best guys every night."
There has not been a significant drop in Kessel's production as he has put up 11 points in the past 10 games, while Lupul has 10 points in that span. There's not really much the two can do about the increased attention, other than to keep doing what they have been doing.
Kessel's speed is unmatched by the majority of forwards in the NHL, and Lupul has established himself as a go-to-the-net type who doesn't mind getting his nose dirty.
"You can't change the way you are playing, you can't start cheating because that hurts you offensively as well as defensively," Wilson said. "The defensive part is obvious, but when you are cheating, your team spends too much time in your own end and cuts down on your offence. There will be times when the game will open up and they will take advantage, but every team knows how well they have played and they are prepared."
Checking, Kessel said, has become tighter in the defensive and neutral zones. Choking off Kessel's speed as early as possible is paramount, given that not many players can shoot off the rush like he does.
"The way he can shoot in stride at full speed, and it looks like stickhandle, stickhandle, and then it is just on net, that catches a lot of goalies off-guard," Lupul said. "It's not necessarily the velocity of the shot, and it is pretty hard, but the way he gets it off. Goalies are starting to key on him and look for that quick shot, but then he makes some little passes too."
Kessel should be able to pass the Flyers' Claude Giroux, who is nursing a concussion, for the NHL scoring lead, though Jonathan Toews, Daniel Sedin, Steven Stamkos, Henrik Sedin and Kris Versteeg are in the mix too.
Neither the scoring lead nor the fact that Kessel leads all NHL players in all-star game voting matters much to the Wisconsin native.
"It's great I have that many fans, it's nice and I appreciate it," Kessel said, "but the main thing is to win hockey games, so I don't really think about it."
Prior to Thursday's NHL games, no duo were as productive in the 2011-12 regular season as Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. A glance at the top scoring pairs in the NHL:
Players, Team Combined points
Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, Toronto 70
Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin, Vancouver 67
Claude Giroux and Scott Hartnell, Philadelphia 66
Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, Chicago 65
Kris Versteeg and Stephen Weiss, Florida 64
Colby Armstrong sat glued to his television on Wednesday night, even though he had rough idea of what he was about to watch.
Though the outgoing Maple Leafs forward lives the NHL experience every day, he didn't dare miss a minute of the first episode of HBO's 24/7 series, dedicated to the days leading to the Winter Classic between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers.
"HBO makes hockey look so cool," Armstrong said. "It's cool to see what the other teams' locker rooms look like and their set-ups. As a fan of the game, the way it is filmed, it is such a good job."
How about Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov? The latter held forth on his ideas about the universe and the threatened species that are tigers.
"His little spiel, I was blown away by that," Armstrong said. "What a wild man. I think he's the most insane player (in a good way) in the league."
Leafs coach Ron Wilson, a friend of Rangers coach John Tortorella and Flyers coach Peter Laviolette, didn't tune in and won't watch the series, which had a fore-runner last season with a 24/7 documentary on the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins.
"I do know both those coaches very well, so I don't think I'm going to get that much insight out of how they think or anything like that," Wilson said. "So that's why I'm not paying attention to it."