Phil Kessel #81 of the Pittsburgh Penguins takes the shot against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Amalie Arena on May 18, 2016 in Tampa, Florida. The Penguins defeated the Lightning 4-2.
(Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America)
When winger Phil Kessel came to Pittsburgh, it was thought he would prosper because he wouldn’t have to be the Penguins’ best player.
Now the Penguins are just six wins away from a Stanley Cup, and Kessel is their best player.
That designation rotates on a fairly frequent basis with the Penguins, as it does with most good teams: Sidney Crosby one night, Evgeni Malkin another night, Kris Letang the next night, etc.
But there’s no denying that Kessel currently sits atop the totem pole.
Kessel leads the Penguins in playoff scoring (and is third in the NHL) with seven goals and nine assists in 14 games. He assisted on the first goal and scored the second as the Penguins beat host Tampa Bay 4-2 in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final on Wednesday.
When Kessel flew down the boards past Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman to set up Carl Hagelin’s ice-breaking goal via rebound with 10 seconds left in the second period, he looked like American Pharoah romping down the rail.
Kessel is the most clinical finisher on the HBK Line (Hagelin, Nick Bonino, Kessel -- duh), the hottest trio in hockey.
Kessel has 36 points in 34 career playoff games. His points-per-game mark of 1.06 is third among active players, trailing only Crosby and Malkin.
Kessel is an established money player. Are you watching, Toronto?
Kessel was viciously lambasted in Toronto by fans and media, but that was because the Maple Leafs stunk (still do) and because he’s an American.
As Penguins GM Jim Rutherford very accurately said, “(Kessel) was the best player Toronto had for (six) years, year in and year out, and he got the blame for everything, which is very unfair.”
Kessel doesn’t look the part of a hockey star. He’s not fat, but he’s jowly. His style of play is a bit quirky.
Kessel had exactly nine hits in 82 games during the regular season. (He’s got seven already in the playoffs. Kessel is running amok. Somebody call the Department of Player Safety.) Kessel hasn’t missed a single game in any of the last six seasons, mostly because he avoids contact like the plague.
Kessel shot his first one-timer in recent memory on Wednesday. How can such a talented pure goal-scorer so rarely shoot one-timers? Oh, that’s right -- whippy stick. Lots of flex. Like I said, quirky.
Kessel speaks to the media, but isn’t much for extended or interesting quotes. He’s not a jerk, but does seem introverted.
That’s all extraneous. Kessel can (and has) disappeared for shifts (games) at a time. But right now, he’s playing what might be the best hockey of his life, and it seems like he knows it.
Check out Kessel’s beatific expression when he scores. It looks like he’s being raptured up to heaven, bathed in the glow of a warm, red light.
Kessel was supposed to be a cancer in Toronto’s locker room. But I’ve had many Penguins tell me he’s a funny, friendly guy and an ideal teammate.
Winning seems to be sports’ version of chemotherapy. You never hear about somebody being a cancer on a good team.
I don’t know Kessel. I’ve barely exchanged words with him. But after all the nonsense he’s had to endure, it’s hard not to be happy for him.
After 66 games, the Penguins had won 34 and lost 32. Since, they’ve won 24 and lost six. They went from borderline playoff team to legit Stanley Cup contender in very short order.
Kessel had a lot to with that. So did 22 other guys. It’s clichéd to say, but that transformation couldn’t happen without everybody’s involvement.
Credit coach Mike Sullivan, too. As Sullivan said, “We like to see in our players what they can do, not what they can’t do.” That was a welcome change.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).