The most interesting watch for the opening game of the Toronto Maple Leafs-Boston Bruins playoff series may be who shows up first for the Leafs, Tyler Bozak or Phil Kessel?
Bozak, who is thought to be nursing a shoulder injury that kept him out of the Leafs' last two NHL regular-season games, was only a part-time participant at the Leafs' practice on Monday. The No. 1 centre went out for a skate before his teammates arrived and seemed to be having trouble handling the puck. He then took part in a few drills with his teammates but left the ice well before they did.
Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle said Bozak's health is a "day-to-day situation," but "hopefully his ailment will subside and he will be available."
David Nonis, the Leafs' general manager, is more optimistic about seeing Bozak in the lineup at the TD Garden in Boston on Wednesday night. "I think there is a chance [Bozak won't play] but it is our expectation that he will be ready," Nonis said.
While the question of Kessel showing up is figurative, since there is nothing wrong with him physically, it is still a real consideration for the Leafs. Ever since he was traded by the Bruins to the Leafs in September, 2009, the team's best pure goal-scorer has never had a good game against his former team, especially in Boston where the fans love to chant "Thank you Kessel," because the Bruins received Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton for him.
Kessel, who led the Leafs in scoring with 20 goals this season and 52 points in 48 games, failed to register a point in the four games the Leafs played against the Bruins, who won three of them. His continuing lack of success appears to be due as much to his own trepidation about playing the Bruins as much as the presence of towering defenceman Zdeno Chara, who is always assigned the task of checking Kessel.
No one can be sure, since Kessel likes talking to the media as much as he does playing the Bruins. He declined to face reporters after Monday's practice, although Nonis implied it will not happen again.
"We'll deal with that internally," he said. "The players will be available [in the future]."
But both Nonis and Carlyle insisted this series does not rest solely on how Kessel performs against Chara. Everyone will be needed if the Leafs are to finally shake the Boston monkey from their backs.
"He's a good player and good players have to play against good players," Carlyle said of Kessel. "But the bottom line is we have more than one player on our team. They have more than one player on their team.
"You [the media] are putting the focus on the playoffs as Kessel versus Chara. I don't get that."
If Bozak is unable to play Wednesday, Nazem Kadri will take his place between Kessel and James van Riemsdyk. However, since winger Leo Komarov took Kadri's regular spot at Monday's practice between wingers Clarke MacArthur and Matt Frattin, while centre Jay McClement stayed on the fourth line, it could mean Carlyle expects Bozak to be ready.