At ease in Pittsburgh, Kessel making impact for Penguins
PITTSBURGH (AP) Phil Kessel speaks in a polite whisper, as if he's worried talking too loudly might inadvertently attract the spotlight and well, he doesn't want that.
The Pittsburgh Penguins forward dealt with it plenty during six bumpy seasons in Toronto, where he served as the flashpoint for an underachieving franchise no matter how many goals he scored or All-Star teams he made, his natural reticence sometimes coming off as petulance for the cameras. The Maple Leafs made the playoffs just once during Kessel's tenure before shipping him to Pittsburgh last summer, a departure that wasn't exactly met with tears on either side.
The transition from a personal standpoint was easy. Playing on roster that includes Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin meant Kessel no longer had to serve as the face of the team, though when pressed about it Kessel manages only to say, ''we have a lot of great players here.''
His transition on the ice took a little longer. Kessel shuttled between lines searching for a comfortable fit before finding one late in the year with Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin. The trio was dynamic at times during Pittsburgh's first-round evisceration of the New York Rangers, Kessel producing three goals and three assists, including a vapor-trail inducing wrist shot past Henrik Lundqvist in the first period of the clincher that set the stage for a 6-2 blowout.
''He can change a game with one shot,'' Crosby said.
One that few players in the league can match.
The Penguins were on their heels a bit and trailing 2-1 when Kessel took a pass from Crosby and raced down the right side, before letting go a sizzler that ticked off Lundqvist's stick and rocketed into the net. It came minutes after his meticulous centering pass to Hagelin put the Penguins on the board. The player long blamed for Toronto's shortcomings has become an important member of a team peaking as it prepares for top-seed Washington in the second round starting this week.
''He's a clutch guy when you need a goal,'' Penguins defenseman Kris Letang said.
A word not often associated with Kessel while wearing the iconic Maple Leafs sweater. Yet those days are long behind him. His gelling with Bonino and Hagelin gives the Penguins three legitimate scoring lines, the kind of depth necessary to make extended runs at raising the Stanley Cup.
''We just go out there and try to play our game and play hard,'' Kessel said.
Chastised at times in the Toronto media for poor conditioning even though he hasn't missed a game in six full seasons, Kessel's attention to detail in Pittsburgh has earned him the admiration of his coach, even if Mike Sullivan isn't exactly one for platitudes.
''I don't think he gets enough credit for the adjustment process he went through when he got here,'' Sullivan said. ''He deserves all the credit for what he's accomplished here over the last two months. He's trying hard to play the game the right way as far as how we define it.''
Kessel tries to downplay his impact, adding he's not sure if there's less pressure playing for a team expected to compete for a Stanley Cup every spring as opposed to being on one in the midst of seemingly perpetual rebuilding. Maybe, but he is sure that being on the ice this time of year - regardless of his own circumstances - beats the alternative he became all too familiar with in Toronto.
When he takes the ice against the Capitals, it will mark his first appearance in the conference semifinals since Boston fell to Carolina in seven games in 2009, back when Kessel was a 21-year-old with his whole career in front of him. He didn't imagine it would take him so long to get back to this stage.
''It's a good feeling,'' he said.
A feeling he'd like to hold on to. That's just fine by his coach, who doesn't think it's a coincidence that Pittsburgh's blistering finish started around the same time Kessel began playing with a freedom too often proved elusive elsewhere. Kessel scored 20 of his 59 points in the Penguins' final 21 games, a stretch that saw the Pittsburgh go 16-5 to move from the fringe of the playoff chase to arguably the hottest team in the league.
''He's one of those guys that can be a difference maker and he has been that for us throughout the course of the last eight weeks of our season,'' Sullivan said. ''He's an important guy for this team and when he plays with the determination he's showing right now, he makes our team better.''