The narrative surrounding the Pittsburgh Penguins at this time of the season has become dependable but also dependably tired: The talent exists, but do they have what it takes to get it done in the playoffs?
For the past six seasons, in and around March, the Penguins have been counted as a Stanley Cup possibility, but not a serious threat. It would be ridiculous to write them off completely, solely because of their stockpile of talent, but it has become second nature to doubt their playoff chances in large part because of their record since they won the Stanley Cup in 2009, they have made it past the second round of the playoffs just once—and even then they were quickly swept by the Boston Bruins.
Eager to get over that playoff hump, Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford went out and landed sniper Phil Kessel from the Toronto Maple Leafs last summer. At the time, it didn’t seem like he paid all that much either (forwards Kasperi Kapanen and Nick Spaling, defenseman Scott Harrington and a 2016 third round draft pick) to land a scoring winger to play with Sidney Crosby.
Eventually, however, Kessel and Crosby couldn’t develop their expected chemistry on the same line and Kessel was slotted in with Evgeni Malkin. Not a bad alternative, but that didn’t help Kessel either: Up until the end of February, he had just 26 even-strength points (1.8 per 60 minutes). In that same time frame last season, while playing on a much weaker Maple Leafs team, Kessel had very comparable numbers: 25 even-strength points and 1.7 per 60 minutes.
Back in October, Kessel stated simply that it takes time to gel with new linemates and promised that eventually the Penguins would get going. “When you play with guys for long periods of time, you learn (their tendencies) and you adapt,” he said.
If, in October, he had said that he would find his stride around March, you could have imagined the uproar. But now Penguins coach Mike Sullivan says Kessel has just played his best two games since Sullivan has took over behind the bench for Mike Johnston in December. Kessel scored a goal and assisted on Crosby’s overtime winner against the New York Rangers on Sunday.
From the outside it looks like we’re starting to see shades of the Kessel that the Penguins had hoped they’d be getting: a league-leading five assists and seven points that earned him the NHL's Third Star of the Week honor while skating on a line with Nick Bonino.
Sunday’s win pulled the Penguins within three points of the second-place Rangers in the Metropolitan Division. Pittsburgh has a game in hand as well.
You could make the case that Kessel hasn’t produced up to expectations this season. But the more factual argument is that the 28-year- old is one of the more unpredictable scorers in the game and that while his 23 goals fall short of the 40, or even 50 that some were predicting, his play in the last month indicates that he is finally finding his game.
And perhaps more notably, he’s finding it at the most important point in the season.
The best hockey we’ve seen from Kessel during the past five years was during the Maple Leafs' first round playoff series against his former team, the Boston Bruins, in the spring of 2013. He put of four goals, six points and +3 rating in the seven games. So, we know he can elevate his game when all the chips are down.
And while Pittsburgh looks like a lock to make the playoffs, home ice advantage in the first round against the Rangers would be nice too. The Pens are doing their part, having gone 10-4 in March. Sidney Crosby’s play has put him back in the Hart Trophy conversation but Kessel also deserves praise.
Everything has come together for him in March: He’s driving possession, with an even-strength Corsi For % of 59.6, compared to 52.8% from October to February. Not only is he driving possession, which was something he was often criticized for not doing in Toronto, he’s creating a lot of scoring chances.
From October to February, Kessel’s even-strength on-ice scoring chances percentage was at 52.1 but it leapt up to 58.3% in March. There are elements to his offensive game, most notably his wrist shot, that still rank among the most potent in the league. To some, him clicking now might not make up for his early season struggles.
But should that really matter?
What Kessel’s offensive production in March means is that, for a scorer who has long been streaky, he’s getting hot when it matters most. For the past month he has played up to the exceedingly high standards many had set for him before the season. If playing his best hockey now gets the Pens home ice advantage and possibly into the late rounds of the playoffs, isn’t that what he was brought in to do?