PITTSBURGH—As everyone else stretched Phil Kessel peeled off from the group and loosed one of those effortlessly heavy wrist shots, and it rang off the post in the quiet practice rink. He tried another one, and it missed the net and hit the end boards with a thump. Then he skated around with Evgeni Malkin for a bit: One tall, widening at the shoulders, with more of a patchy pirate goatee than a playoff beard, the other shorter and wider, with a beard that made him look like a bear. The odd couple, Pittsburgh-style.
“He score,” said Malkin, asked what he thought Kessel would do in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final with the Nashville Predators. “I mean, it’s his time to score. You know, he’s great player, and he like play tough situation, and now it’s time to leadership show good games, time to score. We play at home, it’s our building, our emotion. Just, (from) main people we need big game. It’s how teams win.”
They have been seen arguing on the bench in these playoffs, but there is a Zen to both men. Malkin has reached the perfect zone between disarming honesty and charming second-language Russian-isms, and he knows he hasn’t been good enough.
“It’s like, it’s not easy, but I know I can do better myself,” said Malkin on Wednesday. “Play more with puck, play with more puck, I like to play with puck.”
Kessel, too, has a way of boiling the complexities of hockey and of his own hockey mind down into simple statements. Asked about goal-scoring droughts he says, “I don’t know, it just happens. Just keep going and change it up.” Asked about pressure he says, “I mean we won last year, so I think we’ve been there before. Obviously it’s a big stage, it means a lot, but I don’t think there’s that much pressure. I mean there’s pressure, but I don’t think it’s that crazy.” Asked about handling pressure, he says, “I just kind of do whatever I do, you know?”
Well put, Phil. But especially with Kessel that usually means either he scores or he doesn’t, and Pittsburgh could use the help. The Penguins have been carried by its stars all playoffs long: The top four scorers in the playoffs are Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh rookie Jake Guentzel and Kessel.
They are tied 2-2 with Nashville, and the Predators have dominated puck possession. When Pittsburgh played its best game of the series in Game 4, Crosby created chance after chance and scored Pittsburgh’s lone goal, while Kessel and Malkin didn’t come as close. Kessel hasn’t scored in six games, which is his longest playoff drought as a Penguin; Malkin has been getting caved in all series long, despite scoring in each of the first two games. The odd couple is needed, just now.
“I feel it,” said Malkin. “He wait like long time, he not score long time. But now it’s time. Last game I think he show best game in this series, and I see he is like ice, he play so hard, and I believe, I feel it tomorrow, he show great game.”
“You know what, I had a couple chances too,” said Kessel. “You know I missed the net a couple times where I probably should have hit the net. It happens. It’s hockey, right? I think you’ve just got to keep going and see how it goes.”
Kessel managed 98 shots on goal in 24 games in last year’s Cup-winning post-season, and 10 goals and 22 points; he is at 65 shots in 23 games so far this year, with seven goals and 20 points. He shot less during the season, too, and people close to him say he has been playing through a hand or wrist injury for a while. Still, at 5-on-5, Phil has been on the ice for 15 playoff goals for and eight against, the best ratio of any Penguin. He also has the second-best puck possession numbers of any regular, a little behind Conor Sheary.
Still, he’s in a drought, and this hasn’t been his series. There was a silly column written the other day that said Malkin and Crosby’s legacies were on the line in this final, which is a premise so far out over its skis that it pinwheels across the sky like Wile E. Coyote with rockets strapped to his feet, falling to nowhere.
But along with Kessel, they have a chance to burnish their legacies, and to deepen them immensely. Pittsburgh won the Cup with a dominant team last year; this year, with its screeching-metal-on-metal-sparks of a defence, they are struggling to the finish line. Crosby and Malkin and Kessel have the best chances to make the difference, and further etch their names in history. They are, as Malkin says, main people.
“Obviously it would be pretty sweet, wouldn’t it?” said Kessel. “To play here two years and win two.” Asked what the best part of last year was, Kessel said, “I think after it was said and done the time in the locker room was pretty special. You battle with all these guys for the whole year, and through the playoffs. We’ve got a great group of guys here, and we want to win for each other, so I think that’s the best part.”
Two games left, maybe three. You do it, or you don’t. History waits.