Ron Cook: Phil Kessel's timely production for Penguins a sight for sore eyes
January 22, 2016 12:00 AM
Penguins winger Phil Kessel brings the puck up the ice Thursday night against Philadelphia at Consol Energy Center.
By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The two players most responsible for the sluggish start to the Penguins’ season have picked up their game dramatically. Sidney Crosby was back tormenting the Philadelphia Flyers Thursday night with a goal and an assist in a much-needed, streak-busting 4-3 win at Consol Energy Center. He has points in five consecutive games and 12 of his past 15. Kris Letang didn’t make it on the scoresheet against the Flyers, but led the Penguins with nearly 27 minutes of solid ice time. He has points in eight of his past 11 games.
Now it’s time for Phil Kessel to start earning his millions.
Maybe Thursday was the beginning of better times for Kessel. He scored the Penguins’ final two goals, assuring they completed their climb out of an early 2-0 hole to win an important Metropolitan Division game, the first of 20 they will play down the season’s stretch. They moved three points ahead of the Flyers, a team that had beaten them eight consecutive times, including five at Consol.
“The stakes are high. The emotions are high,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “I liked our response coming out for the second period. We have people in the room who are capable of coming back.”
It was encouraging that Kessel was one of those guys against the Flyers. He came in with just 12 goals in 45 games. He had none in the previous seven games, one in the previous 12 and three in the previous 21. This is a man who scored at least 30 goals in five of the six previous full NHL seasons. When the Penguins made the July trade with Toronto to get Kessel, it wasn’t unreasonable to think he could score 40, maybe even 50 goals on a line with Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. But he has been such a disappointment that SI.com did a story this week suggesting the Penguins trade him before the Feb. 29 deadline because so many teams are so desperate for offense.
General manager Jim Rutherford doesn’t appear ready to make that move, but it’s safe to say the Penguins expect more from Kessel. They are paying for more. Kessel is signed through 2021-22 with an annual salary-cap hit of $6.8 million.
“I know my job with this team is to score goals and make plays and help us on the offensive end,” Kessel said.
“It’s always good when you get a couple to go in. You get a little confidence. I’ve always been a guy who, when I get a couple, they come in bunches. You’ve just got to stick with it. You know they’ll eventually come.”
They came at a great time for Kessel Thursday. His first goal came on the power play after a terrific pass from Crosby and gave the Penguins a 3-2 lead at 14:06 of the second period. His second came when he finished a 2-on-1 with linemate Carl Hagelin and stretched the lead to 4-2 at 6:20 of the third. That turned out to be the winner.
“I got two easy goals tonight,” Kessel said. “I got two great passes. They’re tap-ins. If I miss those, I had better go home.”
Kessel led the Penguins with six shots on goal. Sullivan said that wasn’t an accident.
“I spoke with Phil yesterday about getting himself into areas of the ice where he has opportunities to shoot the puck. I thought he did a much better job of that.”
Said Kessel, “I have to give the credit to the other guys. They got the puck to me.”
Crosby’s pass to Kessel was sensational. Crosby came in with 76 points in 52 career games against the Flyers and his 31 goals against them were his most against any team. He was held to one goal in four games — all losses — against the Flyers last season but bounced back in a big way on this night. In addition to his assist, he beat goaltender Steve Mason high for a goal with a perfectly placed wrist shot that tied the score, 2-2.
“It’s always nice when you get rewarded,” Crosby said. “I think we deserved it tonight.”
Hagelin’s pass to Kessel also was wonderful. Crosby predicted big things for the Hagelin-Malkin-Kessel line once Hagelin settles in. This was just Hagelin’s third game with the Penguins after coming in a trade last Friday from Anaheim.
“[Hagelin] was flying out there,” Crosby said. “Phil can skate himself. With their speed, they’re going to generate a lot of chances.”
The hope — OK, the belief — in the Penguins’ room is that Kessel will start burying a few more of those opportunities on a regular basis. It has to happen if the team is going to make a successful run to the playoffs.
“With his shot, if he gets a chance, there’s not an area on the ice where he’s not dangerous,” Crosby said. “For him to see a couple go in — two big ones — is going to be big and something I’m sure he’ll build off of. I’m happy to see him get a couple.”
Happy for Kessel, to be sure.
But really happy for the team.
Ron Cook: email@example.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
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