There is a hockey player with local ties who has proved himself during the Stanley Cup playoffs to be durable and clutch, productive and adaptable, and if it surprises you that the player’s name is Phil Kessel, you probably care more about reputations and memes than goals.
Now, Kessel has always seemed a bit odd. During his one season at the University of Minnesota he made himself a top NHL prospect with a quick release and a scorer’s instincts. But if you talked to him, one or both of the people involved in the conversation might have trouble staying awake.
It’s strange that some athletes who are so capable of thrilling play have trouble mumbling an interesting sentence, but that’s the way it works sometimes. Kessel’s reputation hasn’t been helped by his “I misplaced by hair brush for a few years” appearance, or that he has the slightly doughy look of a man who makes or enjoys pizzas, or that his first two NHL teams did not advance past the second round of the playoffs, and that both traded him.
If Toronto hadn’t traded Kessel to Pittsburgh, it may have been easy to continue viewing him as a talented underachiever who could score but not win. What has been proved during these playoffs is that Kessel can score while winning, when given a chance to play with the right team.
On a team with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Kessel has found matchups and linemates to his liking and is one of the handful of keys to the Penguins’ postseason success. In a thrilling Game 7 on Wednesday, he produced a goal and an assist, providing the State of Hockey with another local story line in the Cup Final.
“You cherish it, because let me tell you, they don’t come very often,” Kessel told reporters on Saturday. “It’s tough to get here. I’m really excited to be here. … You never think this is going to happen. You dream it. But to get a chance to play for the Stanley Cup is something you dreamed of as a kid, and it’s right here.
“You realize how tough it is. It is really tough to get here. And we’re here, so hopefully we can make the best of it.”
If you can look past his reputation and dissect raw numbers, it seems Kessel has always made the best of his playoff appearances.
According to Ryan Lambert of Yahoo.com’s Puck Daddy, only four active players have played in at least 30 playoff games and recorded an average of a point per game. They are Crosby, Malkin, Mike Cammalleri … and Kessel.
Kessel has produced 37 points in 36 career playoff games. Kessel trails only St. Louis phenom Vladimir Tarasenko in playoff goals per game. Tarasenko has outscored him by 0.03 goals per game.
Lambert also notes that Kessel has 12 primary goals (goals or first assists) this postseason. That ties him for third in the league with Brent Burns and Nikita Kucherov, behind only Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture.
Kessel’s primary points per 60 minutes is fourth in the league, behind Andrew Shaw, Jason Pominville and Couture.
Kessel’s personality and appearance have made many observers view him as a younger Thomas Vanek — a talented scorer who doesn’t seem to care or try. Kessel’s personal history suggests otherwise.
Kessel overcame cancer early in his career. He has not missed a single NHL game since the beginning of the 2009-2010 season, when he was sidelined while recovering from shoulder surgery.
Kessel is durable. Kessel is clutch. Kessel has a chance to win a Stanley Cup.
These are all facts, not perceptions.
“He’s been really good, just really consistent,” Crosby told reporters this weekend. “With his shot, especially with how the playoffs are and everything is so tight, there’s not a lot of time and space, and it works out pretty good for him with that release that he has and how dangerous he is. So he’s been pretty good all season long.”