CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, PA. – Phil Kessel is pressing.
But unlike in the Eastern Conference Final — when cameras caught Kessel and linemate Evgeni Malkin having more than a few tantrums aimed at the other — he has yet to boil over. The Pittsburgh Penguins and former University of Minnesota sniper has been without a goal during a Stanley Cup Final that’s suddenly tied 2-2, with Game 5 against Nashville on Thursday.
Kessel, who has seven goals and 20 points in 22 playoff games, said Wednesday he just needs to make his chances count. He has been limited to one assist and nine shots in four games in this series, a series in which the Penguins are 1-for-16 on the power play.
In the past nine games, Kessel has one goal. He has two in the past 13 games.
What does Malkin expect from Kessel in Game 5?
“He score. I mean, it’s his time to score,” said Malkin, who scored in Games 1 and 2 and leads the league with 26 points in the playoffs. “He knows he’s a great player and he likes to play in tough situations. Now it’s time for leadership to show, time to score. We play at home. It’s our building, our emotion. Me and Phil, we need to bring [our] game and help [the] team to win.”
Veteran Matt Cullen says too much was made of the Kessel-Malkin blowup during the conference final. After a couple of shifts during which Malkin and Kessel didn’t connect on passes, the two players needed to be calmed on the bench by assistant coach Rick Tocchet and head coach Mike Sullivan.
“We see that a lot and we know that Phil wants to win as much as anybody, and I think that was a little snapshot of it,” Cullen said. “Phil and Geno [Malkin] get along, and it’s the furthest thing from reality that they ever harbor any resentment. They each have unique personalities, and they give it to each other all the time. It’s almost like they feed off each other and it gets them going when they yell at each other.
“The first time I saw it, I too was like, ‘Oh geez, what’s going on here?’ But they do it all the time and it seems to get them going. They’re just two competitive guys.”
Tocchet, who has a tight relationship with Kessel, talked with the frustrated forward on the ice during a recent practice. He wants Kessel to get back to basics and shoot the puck more.
“He’s an elite shooter. He can score goals,” Sullivan said. “We always try to encourage him to shoot the puck more because he has one of the best shots in the game. … Phil is a guy, if one goes in for him, it gives him a boost of confidence.”
Kessel calls Tocchet — a former power forward who like Predators assistant coach Phil Housley will be a candidate for the Buffalo and Florida head coaching vacancies after the Final — “my favorite assistant coach I’ve ever played for.”
“He understands the game, he understands what it’s like to be a player,” said Kessel, 29. “He’s been there. He gets it.”
And that’s why Kessel has no problem getting into back-and-forth yelling matches on the bench with Tocchet, too.
“I think people misunderstand,” Kessel said. “We’re not really fiery. We’re talking. It might get animated, but it’s not like anything not normal. We want to win. That’s why I play for. I don’t care about anything else. We’re here to win. I’ve always been like that growing up. All I want to do is win the game.”
And that’s what Cullen says fans and media don’t get about the often-scrutinized Kessel, who led the Penguins with 10 goals and 22 points during last season’s Cup run.
“He’s such a funny guy,” Cullen said. “He just kind of fits into the group and is allowed to be himself. He’s been highly criticized throughout his career for a number of different things, but he’s a really good guy and a little bit misunderstood. He just has a funny personality and he’s a likable guy and the team kind of rallies around him and people love him. That’s the biggest misconception with him. Sometimes people don’t think he tries as hard as he could, but he’s a competitor.
“And, when the stakes are highest, he raises his game. We saw it last year. He’s a gamer.”
Well, the stakes are pretty high now. The Stanley Cup Final has become a best-of-three.
“He [hasn’t] scored in long time,” Malkin said of Kessel. “But now it’s time. Last game I think he showed his best game in this series. He plays so hard and I believe it. I feel it [Thursday] he’ll show [a] great game.”