Ron Cook: Iron man Phil Kessel nears 600 consecutive game milestone
March 18, 2017 12:38 AM
Phil Kessel has been serving as the iron man as the Penguins try to recover from a rash of injuries. “Yeah, it’s been tough,” Kessel said. “Guys get nicked up. Hopefully, we’ll get ‘em back soon and be good going into the playoffs.”
By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Let’s try something different this morning. Instead of focusing on how Evgeni Malkin and Ron Hainsey missed the Penguins’ 6-4 win against the New Jersey Devils Friday night, joining five other regulars on the team’s injury list, let’s write about the Penguins winger who is on the verge of becoming the 11th player in NHL history to play in 600 consecutive regular-season games.
Iron man Phil Kessel.
“I just keep playing,” Kessel said after an eventful night when he played left wing for what he believes was the first time in his career, scored a goal for the first time in 14 games and was denied by goaltender Keith Kincaid on a penalty shot.
“You get some bumps and bruises. You try to keep going no matter what. I like to play the game.”
The match against the Devils was Kessel’s 598th consecutive game. He hasn’t missed one since he sat out the first 12 games of the 2009-10 season with Toronto after offseason shoulder surgery. No. 599 should come at home Sunday against Florida and No. 600 Tuesday night at Buffalo.
Kessel’s durability seems especially amazing this season because of the Penguins’ absurd run of injuries with a different player going out just about every game. The team has lost a total of 94 man-games in the past 21 games. Malkin and Hainsey joined Kris Letang, Carl Hagelin, Trevor Dailey, Olli Maatta and Bryan Rust on the injured list Friday night. Kessel and Ian Cole are the only two Penguins to play in all 70 games this season.
“Yeah, it’s been tough,” Kessel said. “It’s kind of one of those years. We’re playing a lot of games in what feels like a short time. Guys get nicked up. Hopefully, we’ll get ‘em back soon and be good going into the playoffs.”
That’s also Kessel’s personal goal, to be rolling by the time mid-April gets here. His season has been much like last season — his first with the Penguins — when he struggled at times to score goals. He was so bad into January — 12 goals in the first 45 games — that SI.com did a story suggesting Jim Rutherford trade him to get out from under his big contract, which runs through 2021-22 with an annual salary-cap hit of $6.8 million.
The guess here is Rutherford is thrilled he didn’t listen to the unsolicited advice.
Kessel could have won the Conn Smythe Trophy as postseason MVP instead of Sidney Crosby after his performance in the Penguins’ run to the Stanley Cup. He had 10 goals and 12 assists in 24 games as a part of the super-productive HBK line with Hagelin and Nick Bonino. His five power-play goals tied for the NHL lead. Two came in pivotal Game 6s against Washington and Tampa Bay.
That’s why Kessel wasn’t worried about the 13-game goal-less streak he lugged into the Devils game. It wasn’t as if he wasn’t contributing to the Penguins’ success. He’s a superb passer, much better than he’s credited. “I just try to make the right play.” He led the team with 40 assists going into the game, a number that Crosby matched as a part of his two-goal, one-assist night.
“I never worry about scoring goals,” Kessel said. “You just stick with it and things change.”
All of us know what to expect, right?
Come playoff time, Kessel will be ready.
Then again, it appeared as if Mike Sullivan wasn’t taking any chances. He made the curious decision to move Kessel to left wing when he had to shuffle his lines because of Malkin’s injury. He talked to Kessel about it Friday morning at the team skate and told him the intent was to “get him going offensively …
“We thought it might be, just tweak his mindset a little bit. Sometimes, a little bit of a change isn’t a bad thing. He told me he’s comfortable doing it. He feels like he can make the adjustment.”
Kessel responded by coming down left wing early in the game, firing a shot that was blocked and then jumping on the rebound to wrist the puck by Kincaid.
“He was willing to do it,” Sullivan said. “Fortunately for us, he scored. We’re happy for that. Hopefully, that will get him going a little bit more consistently going down the stretch.”
Kessel was happy to get the goal and even happier the team got the win, but he didn’t seem thrilled about playing left wing for what he said “might be the first time …
“It’s a lot different. I’m so used to playing right wing for, geez, I don’t know how long. You kind of like drift to the right, to your spot all the time. I think if I stay there, it’ll take some time to get used to.”
With that, Kessel was off to the trainers’ room. He said he got a knee tangled in a pile early in the game and appeared to be in discomfort when he got back to the bench. But he didn’t miss a shift.
You can’t possibly be surprised, right?
“I’ll ice it a little bit and get ready for Sunday,” Kessel said, shrugging.
It’s what iron men do.
Ron Cook: email@example.com and Twitter@RonCookPG. 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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