Phil Kessel #81 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with his teammates after scoring a goal against Craig Anderson #41 of the Ottawa Senators during the third period in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG PAINTS Arena on May 15, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
The nature of stardom in sports is a funny thing. Praise and blame are meted out in equally hyperbolic measure, with the best players being praised as near gods when things are good, and the dregs of society when things are bad.
With great salary comes great responsibility, or something like that. Phil Kessel knows this better than most. Kessel, of course, was more or less run out of Toronto for reasons that mainly centered around the team stinking up the joint for his final few seasons as a member, and Kessel not being the kind of blood and guts locker room leader who would stomp his feet and raise his voice publicly in an effort to turn the ship around. Never mind that the team around him was a dumpster fire. The charge was that Kessel wasn’t doing enough to will the Maple Leafs to a turnaround.
Actions speak louder than words, though, and Kessel’s actions Monday night were the only thing that mattered for a Penguins team looking to avoid a 2-0 deficit at the hands of the Ottawa Senators, a team that may cause drowsiness, even when taken in small doses.
After having his effort questioned in certain corners of the media and fan base after a few periods of fruitless play preceding Game 2, Kessel let his stick do the talking, beating Ottawa’s Craig Anderson for the game’s only goal late in the third period with a wicked wrist shot that came about as, get this, the result of a second effort.
That isn’t to say that Kessel didn’t have plenty to say, as television cameras caught him angrily grousing on the bench during what passed for “the action” at PPG Paints Arena. His intensity and frustration were both undeniable and apparently very amusing to Chris Kunitz, who was seen laughing at the tirade. When being good at your job means finding a way to do regularly what the NHL seems to enjoy making very difficult, especially in the playoffs, I guess it’s easy to see how stress and frustration would creep in quickly.
The tirade made it odd to consider the vigor with which those fans and media questioned his compete level. If anything, Kessel should be one of, if not the easiest Penguins to analyze. If he’s scoring goals, he’s doing his job. If he isn’t scoring goals, or setting them up regularly, he’s not doing his job. Effort doesn’t really factor into that equation. The guy clearly cares, and his teammates clearly see a different side of him than the borderline sheepish one that appears whenever microphones make their way into his orbit.
The whole reason that the Penguins seemed such a perfect destination for Kessel in principle, and have proved largely same such in practice, is that he isn’t the alpha dog here. Sidney Crosby answers the tough questions, Evgeni Malkin often takes — and seems to thrive on — being the focus of extra scrutiny, and Kessel is the fourth-best skater the team ices when fully healthy, behind Crosby, Malkin and Kris Letang.
Perhaps in a series where goals figure to be at such a premium, a guy like Kessel might command more of the spotlight, and be looked at for more output. If that’s the case, he delivered the goods on Monday. His was the kind of instant offense goal that wins games, that helps a team win a series, win a Stanley Cup. It was what he did for the Pens last year. It’s what he’s done this year, too, in case his critics didn’t notice.
Kessel is tied for fourth in the league in playoff points, and is second on the Penguins in postseason goals, trailing only Jake Guentzel. In other words, he is doing exactly what the Penguins brought him here to do. Sure, he went three games without recording a point, but it wasn’t like he was missing by much. Those three pointless games featured their fair share of posts and crossbars.
That’s not a lack of effort. That’s merely missing by an inch or two. And one look at the stats is all you need to know that, since he’s been a member of the Penguins, the one thing Phil Kessel hasn’t done often in the playoffs is miss.