Monday, April 25, 2016

Kessel makes sweet sounds for Penguins

April 23, 2016

Phil Kessel (Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)

Might happen next round. Could take until the Cup Final. Or perhaps we'll never see it again.
But, as he devilishly grinned after the Penguins' retaliatory pummeling of the New York Rangers in the playoffs, coach Mike Sullivan threw out a tantalizing tease for whichever foes await his sterling club.
“They were a real good line,” Sullivan said of center Evgeni Malkin and wingers Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel. “It's not like they didn't have success. It's not like we can't go back to that.
“Nothing is etched in stone.”
Well, isn't that the truth?
Since Sullivan showed up to save their season, the Penguins have become putty for him to mold instead of the sinking stones they were under former coach Mike Johnston. And Sullivan has proven himself to be a master sculptor.
He's fashioned hockey's fastest, deadliest squad and built it from a base that didn't include a former MVP and two-time scoring champion.
Somehow, the Penguins' transformation from playoff contender to Cup challenger began when Malkin's elbow was injured in March. In some way, that injury sparked what has become a white-hot fire that burned arguably the best goalie of his generation.
The Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist was a beaten man by the end of Round 1. No Penguin beat him more than Kessel, who matched Sidney Crosby's three goals in the series. But there is another statistic I suspect GM Jim Rutherford found much more satisfying.
Crosby, Malkin, Kessel and defenseman Kris Letang each produced points in four of the five games.
A year ago, Malkin went five games without a point (and Letang didn't play) in a Round 1 loss to the Rangers. The year before that, Crosby recorded only three points — and none in three losses that closed the series — against the Rangers in Round 2.
And who can forget the two goals the Penguins scored when the Bruins swept them from the 2013 East final?
Rutherford couldn't, and he wasn't even running the Penguins back then. He was running out of time, even only a year into the gig, to fix the Penguins last offseason.
He knew his franchise's power trio of stars would benefit from a fourth, just like Crosby, Stills and Nash were boosted by the addition of Neil Young.
I'm not suggesting Kessel is the Neil Young of the NHL ...
Actually, I'm suggesting exactly that. Neither the player nor rocker is conventionally great, but both can scorch and are uniquely comfortable on center stage (if not in the spotlight).
In Toronto, Kessel had burned out. In Pittsburgh, the Penguins had faded away from a pack of legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. In south Florida last June, Rutherford finished the NHL Entry Draft confident he could swing a trade to make a marriage of convenience.
It took nine months to start, but it's been some honeymoon between Kessel and the Penguins ever since Malkin's injury. Over 20 games, Kessel has scored nine goals and assisted on 11 — none bigger than the ones he set up and notched Saturday afternoon.
The Penguins were lousy for the first seven minutes of Game 5. Rookie goalie Matt Murray kept them from giving the thing away.
Kessel made sure they wouldn't, though I'm not sure which was more impressive — the darting feed to Hagelin or the missile he launched past Lundqvist. Does it matter? Both helped pull the Penguins even by the end of the first period.
For the rest of Game 5, the Rangers were never even close.
A 6-3 victory finished the best-of-seven series, and the Penguins await a not-so-friendly foe in Round 2. They'll get either the Capitals or Flyers, and they're in good shape to beat either rival.
They'll get rest over the next several days. They're not going to get rusty.
And, despite what their coach hinted after their latest win, the Penguins shouldn't get crazy when it comes to changing their lines. After all, how many hockey teams can anchor a line with a career point-per-game scorer in the postseason?
Only one.
It's the same hockey team that has the top three point-per-game scorers among current NHL players.
Crosby is first. Malkin is second. Kessel is third.
Add Letang, unparalleled among remaining playoff defensemen in terms of offensive skill, and the Penguins have four who can score a Stanley Cup symphony.
Isn't that how it was supposed to work in Pittsburgh, anyway?
Rob Rossi is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at or via Twitter@RobRossi_Trib.

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