BOSTON -- Since his trade to the Toronto Maple Leafs four years ago, Phil Kessel has rarely found himself in a position to quiet the diehard fans who once cheered for him as a member of the Boston Bruins.
In 23 previous matches against the Bruins, Kessel had failed to score an even-strength goal. He mustered only three power-play goals.
But that all changed in one swooping motion on Saturday night. Kessel earned some revenge against his former team by scoring what proved to be the decisive goal early in the third period to lead the Maple Leafs to a 4-2 victory over the Bruins in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
"I think you can see the smile on his face, and I guess the energy that our bench got from it so it was a big positive in that respect," Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said.
The victory enabled the Maple Leafs, who survived a heavy dose of offensive pressure from the Bruins down the stretch, to even this best-of-7 series at one victory apiece. Game 3 is scheduled at Air Canada Centre on Monday (7 p.m. ET; NHLN-US, CBC, RDS).
Not only did Kessel's goal give the Maple Leafs a 3-1 lead, it gave everyone on the bench a jolt of energy.
"It was huge to see him get that goal," forward James van Riemsdyk said. "When you're playing against your former team, you always have that extra motivation. He's a huge part of our team and does a lot offensively for us, so to see him break through like that is definitely exciting.
"It's exciting for him, and exciting for us because he's obviously a key guy for us."
As good as Boston was in its 4-1 victory in Game 1 on Wednesday, the Maple Leafs were equally sharp and effective on Saturday in an impressive response. Unlike the team's lackluster effort in the previous contest, Toronto's top players were raring to go from the outset.
Joffrey Lupul scored twice and van Riemsdyk once. Goalie James Reimer made 39 saves. Captain Dion Phaneuf had four hits, blocked one shot and had one assist in 23:35 of ice time.
"You want your best players to be the best and lead, but it takes every guy in the playoffs," Lupul said. "I think that's why we were successful."
The Maple Leafs totaled 17 blocked shots, including four by defenseman Mark Fraser and three by forward Mikhail Grabovski. They also outhit the Bruins 44-35, with defenseman Carl Gunnarsson and forward Matt Frattin leading the way with five apiece.
"We were getting pucks out and playing physical in front of our net," Lupul said. "That has to continue. You don't win playoff games with just three or four guys going. It's going to take a team effort."
With the Maple Leafs clinging to a precarious 3-2 lead, van Riemsdyk scored off a splendid backhand attempt while falling to the ice with 3:07 remaining in regulation to give the visitors the insurance they needed. It was the second goal of the series for van Riemsdyk, who was celebrating his 24th birthday.
"[Grabovski] had a lot of speed going through the neutral zone, and drew two guys to him and I was able to slip behind the defense," van Riemsdyk said. "He laid a perfect pass in, and I wanted to hold and get it across the net and shoot it but whiffed. I was able to slide it in, and gracefully or ungracefully, fell down and that was it."
Kessel stunned the sellout crowd at the arena he used to call home when he scored on a breakaway 53 seconds into the third to give his team a 3-1 lead.
"It was nice," Kessel said. "Naz [Nazem Kadri] made a good pass, and I was just fortunate it went in."
It was his first even-strength goal against the Bruins, the team for which he spent three seasons. He entered having connected for three power-play goals during his four seasons with the Maple Leafs.
The Bruins pulled within 3-2 when defenseman Johnny Boychuk's blast from the right point appeared to deflect off Toronto's Tyler Bozak and past Reimer at 10:35. Tyler Seguin was battling with Bozak in the slot at the time the puck was deflected in front.
"They were a much hungrier team and it showed," Bruins captain Zdeno Chara said. "We know we've got to be better."
Reimer was called upon to make 17 saves in the second and 12 more in the third for the Maple Leafs in notching the first playoff victory of his career.
"It's obviously nice to win," Reimer said. "It would [stink] if you lost all four in your first playoff series, but if that were to happen that's the way it would've gone. It doesn't mean much if we don't keep going here. It's going to be a long series and we've got to keep battling."
The Maple Leafs took their first lead of the game midway through the second period on Lupul's second goal of the night. Matt Frattin and Lupul raced in 2-on-1, and Frattin made a nice dish from the bottom of the right circle across the crease. Lupul controlled the puck on his backhand and lofted a shot over Tuukka Rask to give Toronto a 2-1 lead.
The goal came less than two minutes after Toronto's Nikolai Kulemin rang a shot off the long-side post from right circle.
Rask (28 saves) kept his team within striking distance when he stopped Ryan Hamilton on two quick shots and then Kessel on the rebound with just over seven minutes left in the second.
"They really wanted to battle harder than the first game, and it showed," Rask said. "They battled from every single puck and threw a lot of pucks at net, traffic and tips, and got rewarded for it."
Reimer also needed to come up big. His best save came at 16:57 of the middle period when he used his right pad to deny Seguin on a turnaround snap shot from 25 feet.
The Leafs pulled into a 1-1 tie 5:18 into the second with Chara in the penalty box for tripping. Jake Gardiner took a shot from the left point that Rask stopped, but Lupul outfought everyone for the rebound and swept it into the right corner of the net.
"It was nice to get one on the power play there," Lupul said. "They are one of the better penalty-killing teams, so getting one on the power play is a big momentum swing and we were a threat all night. We shot a lot more pucks and went hard to the net and that will probably be the recipe for the rest of the series."
The Bruins took a 1-0 lead 1:56 into the middle period when Nathan Horton deflected home a puck while he was coming to a stop in the crease in front of Reimer. Horton skated hard down the left wing before dropping a pass to Milan Lucic, whose slap shot from the left circle bounced off Reimer, hit Horton in the shin and caromed into the net. The goal was reviewed and confirmed by video replay.
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter: @mikemorrealeNHL