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Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel and his team are in Beantown for Tuesday's clash against the Bruins. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette


With reporters and cameras beginning to gather around Phil Kessel for his latest words of wisdom on Monday, the Toronto Maple Leafs winger looked over at his neighbour in the dressing room and said: "They're here for you."

Joey Crabb simply grinned.

Alas, that was wishful thinking for Toronto's notoriously withdrawn goal scorer, who again becomes the reluctant centre of attention with the Leafs facing his former team, the Bruins, in Boston on Tuesday night.

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Such is the problem when you're dealt to a division rival: You see them six times a year and it makes for an easy storyline every time you do.

"How many times have I played there?" Kessel asked as he walked away from the mass of media. "It feels like 35."

That it's only four speaks to just how memorable those trips have been. Kessel's only other visit to Boston this season ended with a 2-0 Toronto loss and the Beantown fans serenading him with a mocking "Thank you," a response to the 2009 trade that gave them three high draft picks.

Including five games at the Air Canada Centre, Kessel has now played his former team nine times, going scoreless with one assist for his worst points-per-game output against any NHL team in his 348-game career.

Making matters worse this time around is the worst goal-scoring slumps of his career. If he fails to break his current string against the Bruins, Kessel will match a career high of 15 consecutive games without a goal.

"Right now, it's a tough stretch, I guess, to say the least," Kessel said. "I gotta be better. I gotta figure out a way to get them in the net."

Teammates keep an optimistic view. "It's exciting to play with him right now," Joffrey Lupul said of his new linemate, "because you know any one of these games he's going to break out."

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Kessel's apparent frustration with his coach, meanwhile, has become a cause for debate in Toronto, but it hasn't persuaded the Leafs bench boss to limit his criticisms. Asked Monday about the continued funk the team's highest paid forward is in, Ron Wilson didn't hold back.

"Phil's the one that's got to work his way out of this," Wilson said. "There's only so much you can do to help him in terms of playing with different people. He's got to score on his chances and dig in and help in other ways until the puck goes in the net.

"That's what we need from him. To not allow the frustration to affect how you play in the other areas of the game that are important to the team as well. Backchecking, fore-checking and things like that. So he's just got to keep plugging along until the puck goes in."

Wilson's comments follow a crack he made last week about Kessel going for "the Masters green jacket," a reference to his minus-19 rating being more of a fit on a golf leaderboard than an NHL team.

That figure will be a cause for concern with his new linemates, too, as neither Lupul nor centre Tyler Bozak (minus-21) are known for their defensive play.

The coach had few other options, however, after Kessel appeared to have a negative effect on Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin, two of the team's more consistently productive players, the past two games.

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The new combinations mean Wilson will simply have to continue to keep Kessel's line away from some of the higher scoring opposition, as has been the trend this season.

Getting offensive production out of him and his linemates also has to be considered a must, especially given the normally stingy Bruins have allowed 20 goals in their past three games.

"We've got to show up emotionally and physically and be ready for a tough game," Wilson said. "Obviously with the Bruins giving up some goals, they'll batten down the hatches even more and we're going to have to work really hard to score."

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Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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