Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with Sidney Crosby (87) and Phil Kessel (right) after scoring against the San Jose Sharks in the second period of Game Four of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center on June 6, 2016 in San Jose, California.
SAN JOSE – This is something that simply needs to be said. The Pittsburgh Penguins are on the verge of winning their fourth Stanley Cup in franchise history because of Phil Kessel. Now sit back and let that sink in for a minute. And if you’re a fan of the Boston Bruins or Toronto Maple Leafs, please stay a safe distance from sharp objects.
Since the Penguins last won the Cup in 2009, they were beaten out in the playoffs six of seven years by a team that finished lower than they did in the standings. What they failed to grasp is that superstars get shut down in the playoffs, so you need very good support players to succeed. And in Kessel, they might have one of the most talented support players in the history of the game.
“For me, when I watch (Kessel) play, I say to myself, ‘He’s committed,’ ” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “He’s committed to helping us win.”
Kessel’s two assists in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final were instrumental in the Penguins taking a stranglehold on the series and giving them the opportunity to win the Stanley Cup on home ice for the first time in franchise history when they take to the ice for Game 5 Thursday night. But it is more than that. Kessel has received a new lease on life in Pittsburgh and a complete rejuvenation under Sullivan, who has used him masterfully and put him in situations where he can succeed.
And he has succeeded. When it comes to Kessel’s transformation, we’ll let Sullivan tell it. These are words that, until Monday night, may never have been uttered by any coach of Phil Kessel at any level. Here goes:
“I didn’t do anything. For me, Phil deserves the credit for his contribution to helping this team win. Him and I have had conversations throughout the course of the season. We have a very transparent relationship. I try to challenge him in areas of his game where we think he can improve, get better, help our team win. Those are the types of conversations that I’ve had with him over the last four or five months.
“I think Phil has made a complete commitment to this team. We don’t get to where we’re at if Phil doesn’t play the type of hockey that he’s played here throughout the course of this playoffs. He has been one terrific player for us. He scores big goals. His offense speaks for itself. He’s dangerous on the power play. He’s dangerous off the rush. But I think what his teammates admire and respect, what his coaching staff certainly does, is his commitment away from the puck and to play at both ends of the rink. He’s a complete player right now. When he plays that way, he’s one of the more elite players in the league, in our opinion.”
Should the Penguins win the Stanley Cup, Sidney Crosby will likely win the Conn Smythe Trophy. But Kessel will undoubtedly get some support, as will goalie Matt Murray. But that likely won’t bother Kessel, who hates the limelight anyway – which was part of why he was such a poor fit in both Boston and Toronto. But is there anyone on hockey who, if you think back to a year ago, was less likely to be in the position he is today? Well, defenseman Justin Schultz comes to mind, but you get the idea.
And so it goes in the Stanley Cup final that has yet to live up to the hype from an entertainment standpoint. It’s probably more compelling than some of those tractor pulls we were forced to watch in the early 2000s, but from an entertainment standpoint, it has been less than compelling. It’s probably a little difficult to watch if you don’t have a rooting interest. This should not be confused with the quality of the players and coaching in this series. In fact, you could argue that the play is so turgid because the players are so good and they’re so well-coached. And bad ice. Yeah, for sure skating in glorified slush isn’t helping things along.
Should the Penguins put a bow on this puppy with a victory Thursday night, this Stanley Cup final will not go down as a classic. But it will go down as the one where Phil Kessel proved that he could do what everyone thought he could, albeit in entirely different circumstances. No way he does this in Toronto. No way he does this in Boston. He’s doing this because he’s not the star of the show.
Even though that’s exactly how he’s playing.