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Kessel finally delivers on home ice as Leafs explode in third to beat Devils

If Phil Kessel keeps up this type of home ice production he'll soon catch Frazer McLaren, maybe as early as Wednesday, when the Toronto Maple Leafs hit the half-way mark of the abbreviated, 48-game regular season schedule with a contest against the Ottawa Senators at the Air Canada Centre.

And if Nazem Kadri keeps up this level of play? Consider that New Jersey Devils' head coach Peter DeBoer told a Toronto newspaper that Kadri plays with the same edge as – deep breath, here – Doug Gilmour?

Head coach Randy Carlyle, venturing dangerously into Ron Wilson territory, gently chided reporters questions after a 4-2 win over the New Jersey Devils by tempering expectations for Kadri. "You guys just want to anoint  him, don't you?" Carlyle asked, then listed his transgressions: going 1 on 4 against the Devils on one rush … taking a two-minute shift … starting a run of turnovers. "And," Carlyle added, "he's still the fair-haired boy."

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This was not miserable old Wilson criticizing a softball question about James Reimer by rolling his eyes and muttering about the Toronto media's tendency to "build statues." In fact, it was delivered with a spoonful of sugar, Carlyle noting that Kadri – who had a goal and an assist – does have a skill set that separates players and that his job was ensuring that Kadri, in the coach's words, "plays in the league for 10 or 15 years, not four or five.

"We want to teach him the right way to play," Carlyle added.

Kadri is the kid with all the bounces going his way right now.

Monday, as the Leafs evened their home record at 5-5, he scored his ninth goal when an attempted pass for Leo Komarov went off the blade of Devils goaltender Johan Hedberg and into the net.

After Marek Zidlicky's two goals allowed the Devils to take a 2-1 lead after 40 minutes in which they'd limited the Leafs to 10 shots – and after Jay McClement jumped on Patrik Elias' negligent pass into open ice 39 seconds into the third period to tie the score – Kadri set up Clarke MacArthur with what would prove to be the game-winner on the power-play at 7:25, showing good patience as he deposited a pass on MacArthur's stick at the foot of the crease.

Kessel scored his first home goal of the season a little more than two minutes later, finishing off a 2-on-1 with James van Riemsdyk on a night when Leafs goaltender James Reimer was a worthy first star.

McClement has been a most useful addition to the Maple Leafs this season, and there was a reason that Carlyle elected to have him on the ice on the first shift of the third period. Carlyle has for the most part had a great deal of success milking minutes out of his fourth liners and defencemen such as Mark Fraser and Mike Kostka but Monday night looked like a night when he faith in his fourth liners might do him in. Dave Steckel, Colton Orr and McLaren – who has two goals at the ACC – were pick-pocketed by Zidlicky on both of his goals, with Orr and McLaren standing around on his first goal, letting him move in from the left side unencumbered, and combining to turn over the puck inside the Devils end on Zidlicky's second goal. But McClement separated himself from that group early in the season.

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"We talked about things a bit in between the second and third period," McClement said. "We didn't have our good, physical game going out there and our game doesn't take off unless that's working for us. The plan was start skating, get the puck deep and make little, simple plays. We did that, and they (the Devils) backed off a little bit."

Kessel, Bozak and van Reimsdyk have a grand total of six goals through 10 home games, four of them by van Riemsdyk.  Matt Frattin has as many goals at the ACC as van Riemsdyk, despite the fact that four of the 10 games he's missed with injury have been home games. McLaren, who is here for his fists, has two goals at the ACC. Yikes.

The optimists will say that the return of Frattin and Joffrey Lupul will restore some order and depth to the forward positions, and they are correct, but if Bozak and Kessel, in particular, continue to waste more minutes of ice time than any other first-line forwards in the NHL, it will ultimately not matter.

To the Leafs credit, they have few passengers on most nights under Carlyle. Unfortunately, when they do it's the folks in first class. Yet here they are, better than most anybody expected and with plenty of time for players such as Kessel to put their imprimatur on this team as much as – dare we say it? – Kadri.

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