Phil Kessel #81 of the Pittsburgh Penguins shoots the puck during the first period against the San Jose Sharks in Game Two of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Consol Energy Center on June 1, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
I want you to love Phil Kessel.
Kessel deserves your love. He also deserves the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the Stanley Cup playoffs, but he’s not going to get that. Voters among the Canadian hockey media (read: the Toronto Maple Leafs fan club) won’t let that happen.
Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun sowed the seeds for a screw job when he told a radio show that the Smythe really goes to the outstanding player in the final. Simmons is also the guy who fabricated a story about Kessel frequently wolfing down hot dogs purchased from a Toronto street vendor while Kessel played for the Leafs.
Simmons is also wrong about the criteria for the Conn Smythe Trophy. According to NHL.com, “The Conn Smythe Trophy is an annual award given to the most valuable player for his team in the playoffs.” Not just the final. The entire playoffs.
Simmons also tweeted, “I can’t remember a Stanley Cup Final less interesting than this one.” Yeah, I’ll say. Since 1967, probably.
Kessel’s consistency throughout these playoffs is undeniable: In 22 games, he’s been held pointless just seven times. Kessel leads the Penguins in goals (10) and points (21). He had six points in each of the Penguins’ previous three series. During the Stanley Cup Final, Kessel has three points in four games, including two primary assists during the Penguins’ 3-1 win in Game 4. Kessel put the Penguins on the brink.
Only three players have had 10-plus goals, 20-plus points, 10-plus power-play points and 90-plus shots on goal in a single playoff since 2006: Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg in 2009, the Penguins' Evgeni Malkin in 2009 and Kessel this year.
Kessel’s postseason outburst isn’t a surprise. In 22 career playoff games prior to the current campaign, Kessel had 13 goals and eight assists. He’s a money player.
But none of the above matters. Kessel won’t get the Conn Smythe Trophy. No way.
There are certainly other deserving candidates, Matt Murray first and foremost. Murray is 5-0 with a 1.75 goals-against average in games following a loss during this post-season. Murray allowed two goals or fewer in four of those five starts. If you never let losses bunch up, you don’t lose playoff series.
Sidney Crosby has solid stats: Six goals and 11 assists in 22 games. He had three game-winning goals in the Eastern Conference final vs. Tampa Bay and totally dominated Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Final. Big moments = MVP.
So, because Kessel won’t get the Smythe, give him your love.
Give him your respect, too. Kessel deserves the respect of every hockey fan.
Kessel beat cancer. He’s the only cancer survivor who somehow didn’t become a sympathetic figure in the aftermath.
Kessel is entertaining. He’s one of hockey’s fastest skaters. He scores goals.
Kessel is durable. He hasn’t missed a game in six years. (Full disclosure: This is mostly because Kessel avoids contact like it would give him the Zika virus.)
Kessel is a good teammate. The Penguins' locker room loves him.
The Maple Leafs stink, and have for a long time. Kessel was the Toronto media’s American scapegoat.
As Penguins GM Jim Rutherford said, “He was the best player Toronto had for (six) years. Year in and year out, and he got the blame for everything, which was unfair.”
If the Penguins can win one more game, Kessel will get something that might be comparable to a Stanley Cup, or a Conn Smythe Trophy.
Kessel will get the last laugh. Are you watching, Toronto?
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).