It appears Pittsburgh Penguins winger Kasperi Kapanen received head coach Mike Sullivan’s message from Saturday, loud and clear.
The Penguins rallied for a 3-2 win over the Washington Capitals on Saturday, but Kapanen was merely a spectator in the third period. Sullivan used a coach’s biggest weapon, ice time, to inform Kapanen that he hasn’t played well enough.
On Tuesday night, Kapanen was the last player to touch the puck as he scored the overtime game-winning goal in another Penguins 3-2 win over Washington.
For Kasperi Kapanen, it was a message received.
“It was a good time to have a conversation with (Sullivan). Kind of reset. Look back at the last games that I played, which obviously haven’t been good enough,” Kapanen said. “We talked about what he expects out of me. To play with (Sidney Crosby) and Jake (Guentzel) is obviously a privilege.”
There is little denying the Pittsburgh Penguins were thorough in their 3-2 OT win on Tuesday night. Even the Washington broadcast expressed praise for Penguins complete 200-foot game from start to finish. Kapanen was a primary participant after fading to the background for several games.
“I felt like our line played better (Tuesday), and I took strides forward and in the right direction, but there’s still room to improve,” Kapanen said.
In the 3-on-3 OT, Kapanen was paired with Penguins center Teddy Blueger. Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry darted from the net to poke the puck forward, where Blueger and Kapanen did the rest.
“They had a chance in our zone, and Teddy did a good job of picking it up along the boards. I was yelling that maybe we had a two-on-one,” said Kapanen. “He found me really well. He faked a shot and gave it to me. I tried to go short side and was lucky enough to get the winner.”
The Penguins’ win catapulted them into third place in the East Division, though no one should get comfortable. The Penguins lead the fifth-place Philadelphia Flyers by only two points, and the Flyers have two games in hand.
The Penguins have won five of six games, and goalie Tristan Jarry has allowed two or fewer goals in three straight games.
But we’re talking about Kasperi Kapanen. He was the Penguins’ primary trade target in the offseason. When other GMs balked at giving the Toronto Maple Leafs a first-round pick for Kapanen, who scored just 13 goals last season, former Penguins GM Jim Rutherford didn’t hesitate.
Kapanen, 24, is in the second year of a contract with a $3.2 AAV. Sullivan made no secret the plan was to include Kapanen on the Penguins’ top line with Guentzel and Crosby. It took a few extra weeks to get Kapanen in game shape after COVID travel restrictions stranded him in Finland. And when Bryan Rust formed an unstoppable trio with Guentzel and Crosby, that only further delayed Kapanen’s inclusion on the top line.
Last week, Sullivan finally pulled the switch and elevated Kapanen to Crosby’s line. Kapanen has three points (1g, 2a) in the three games since the switch. Saturday was a big bump in the road, but Tuesday was a course correction.
“I thought it was one of Kappy’s best games as a Penguin. He was much more involved in the forecheck. He stayed engaged in the offensive zone with his linemates,” Sullivan said. “I think his speed was evident. And, obviously, the goal he scored, you could see how capable of a goal scorer he is.”
This season, Kapanen has nine points (3g, 6a) in 14 games. After a raucous start that had fans clamoring for more, Kapanen didn’t mesh well with Evgeni Malkin on the Penguins second line. Since Sullivan was reticent to break up a “dominant line” with Guentzel, Crosby, and Rust, Kapanen receded.
“Everybody sees how I played. I feel it too. It wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t engaged as I wanted to be and as I should have been,” Kapanen conceded. “So, it was a good time to have a talk (with Sullivan), and he’s trying to help me out as much as he can to push me forward and help me be a better player. It was a good time to have that talk.”
While some coaches go to the ice time weapon more often, Sullivan has only sparingly used it in his Penguins tenure. Phil Kessel and Ian Cole spring to mind, but few others. Kapanen’s pine time was a noticeable and stern message that seemed to pay dividends, not just to Kapanen but to the lineup in general.
Tuesday was one of the Penguins’ most complete games this season. They fired 37 shots but limited Washington to just 22.
Unfortunately, Kasperi Kapanen has not been on the right side of the ledger recently. His scoring chance rate (48%) and high-danger rate (42%) are upside down, which means the opponents have been getting more chances and better chances.
That speaks to Kapanen not being as engaged in the offensive zone as he, or coaches, wanted.
“With that speed he has and the scoring touch, we think he can be a real important player for us,” said Sullivan. “I thought it was one of Kappy’s best games, if not his best game as a Penguin.”