Phil Kessel #81 of the Pittsburgh Penguins scores a goal against Andrei Vasilevskiy #88 of the Tampa Bay Lightning during the third period in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena on May 18, 2016 in Tampa, Florida.
(Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America)
TAMPA, FLA. - For the most part, Phil Kessel left Randy Carlyle grimacing more than smiling during their rocky times with the Leafs. But maybe, just maybe, a post-game incident involving the speedy winger Wednesday actually caused the former Toronto coach to grin.
It certainly had that effect on a national TV audience.
To recap: At the conclusion of the Penguins 4-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final on Wednesday night, NBC analyst Pierre McGuire began a rinkside interview with Kessel by asking: “How’s your breath?”
Kessel, obviously thinking that the question related to the possible stench coming from his mouth, replied: “It’s not good, eh?” A chuckling McGuire then said, “No! I meant in terms of conditioning.”
Kessel burst into laughter and went on to provide an answer before yelling, “I can’t believe that.”
Kessel, it seems, had misunderstood the question, much in the same manner that his teammates claim the outside world misunderstands Kessel himself.
Jokingly asked Thursday if Kessel did, in fact, have bad breath, Penguins captain Sidney Crosby laughed before replying, “I don’t think so.
“First of all, I think it was funny, it was awesome,” Crosby said. “I think that anyone being asked that question, I think we’ve all probably thought to ourselves, ‘How do you answer that?’ It’s kind of a tough one to answer and he handled it great. It was pretty funny.
“It’s probably perfect that it was Phil because he’s probably the one to handle it as good as that. We had a good laugh at that.”
During the Kessel era with the Maple Leafs, including his time playing for Carlyle, such inside peeks at Kessel’s personality were rare. Why?
“I don’t think it’s because of how things went in Toronto,” Crosby replied. “I just think it’s because he doesn’t necessarily want to be in front of the camera. You don’t need that every day.
“He’s a pretty laid back, funny guy, a fun guy to be around. You only see certain sides of people in interviews with the media when you are talking hockey every day. You don’t see the other side of people. And for Phil, he’s a pretty funny guy. You saw that with that interview.”
Had this incident occurred in Toronto, the demand for Kessel to address the gaggle of reporters Thursday in reaction to the McGuire sitation would have been overwhelming for someone who shuns the off-ice spotlight. But with the Penguins, as was the case on Thursday, captain Sid — AKA, the face of the franchise — was there to diffuse the situation.
According to Carlyle, that’s one of the big differences for Kessel from his days in Toronto.
With 16 points in 14 postseason games, Kessel is a legitimate candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy as NHL playoff MVP. He’s accomplishing all this while playing on the so-called third line with Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin.
Here, he does not have to be the offensive leader like he was in Toronto. The likes of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang occupy that role on the Penguins.
Here, the attention is on Sid and Geno and Letang. They are the stars. They shoulder the pressure.
The only thing Kessel is being asked to do is produce. And he’s doing it.
“This is a good fit for Phil,” Carlyle told Postmedia in a phone interview Thursday. “There was never a doubt that Phil could score. I just think that he’s not in the limelight, he’s somewhat behind Crosby and Malkin, and he’s just there. He fits. And nobody expects much more out of him other than when you get the opportunity, put the puck in the net. His line isn’t always being matched with the other team’s top checking line, so that helps, too, although they’ve been dominant when I’ve seen them.
“I think he’s changed a little bit, too. I think when you get tapped into certain roles and you’re supposed to be ‘the guy’ and it doesn’t work out that way, there’s bound to be (backlash) about the lack of individual success even though the team around him isn’t winning. In Toronto we just weren’t good enough as a team.
“The key is to put players in positions where they can have success. With Phil, yeah, he wasn’t always going to be the hardest player to play against from a physical standpoint. But he was the type of player who could strip the puck off people. He could work the puck down low. When he had the puck, he was a very dangerous player. He’s a shooter. And he could make plays on the power play. You watch the Pittsburgh power play, they drop passes to Phil. That’s what happened in Toronto. He wanted to be the guy who brought the puck up the ice. That’s what Pittsburgh is having him do.
“You have to credit Mike Sullivan and his coaching staff, they saw the niche for him. It’s been the perfect fit for him to slide in with Hagelin and Bonino. Good for him. He’s having quite a bit of success.”
That he is, bad breath or not.
KESSEL’S TREATMENT IN TORONTO WAS ‘UNFAIR’
Jim Rutherford stopped short of telling all the Phil Kessel bashers in Toronto “I told you so.”
But read between the lines and the Pittsburgh Penguins general manager pretty much implied it.
Asked by Postmedia Thursday if he ever thought trading for Kessel from the Maple Leafs last summer was as much of a risk as public perception made it out to be, Rutherford emphatically said no.
“Not at all,” Rutherford said. “For some reason, lots of people don’t like Phil Kessel. For some reason. He was the best player Toronto had for eight years, year in and year out, and he got the blame for everything, which is very unfair.
“He’s a very talented player. We all know he can score. But he’s a playmaker as well. He can pass the puck as well as just about anybody in this league. And I’m really happy for him. Because he stuck with it and it paid off.”