The defeat crushed Pittsburgh Penguins winger Kasperi Kapanen. His melancholy and emotional attachment to the Penguins was obvious as he answered questions for the final time after the 2020-21 Penguins season crashed with a thud on Monday. His answers included big breaths, a softening voice, and long pauses with those big breaths.
The Penguins had a 2-1 series lead and felt good about their chances on Thursday morning. By Monday, the season was over. Three straight losses in the playoffs will do that.
But man, Kapanen brought some style game to his exit interviews. Most players show up in a team t-shirt and hat or some semblance of workout gear. Exit interviews with coaches and management aren’t usually celebratory events or fashionable soirees, but Kapanen managed to bring a bit of pop to the proceedings.
Even as the breath seemed to leave his chest when talking about the end of the Pittsburgh Penguins season.
“It wasn’t the start that I wanted for sure, but just a great group of guys kind of like welcomed me in, made me feel at home in a way, for sure. So I’m grateful for that,” Kapanen said. “And the way that it ended was short, but (long pause) it sucks right now. But I’m very grateful for the way the guys kind of made me feel at home and made me feel part of this team, and I appreciate that. So that’s my best answer.”
Kasperi Kapanen didn’t arrive in Pittsburgh immediately. He was delayed by COVID restrictions and immigration status, delaying his travel from Finland. Kapanen didn’t show up until the end of training camp and had to complete a two-week quarantine.
He burst onto the Penguins scene. His first game electrified the Penguins and helped to beat the Washington Capitals in overtime. Fans who weren’t yet allowed in the building clamored for more, even as Kapanen slotted on the fourth line to get back into game shape.
“I’m looking forward to (next season) right away, to be honest. I mean, I was in Toronto before this, and it was a great place to be, but I never really felt this comfortable ever with a certain group of guys,” Kapanen said before again trailing off. “And I’m just very lucky to be here, and it’s a joy with these guys right now.”
With his bright purple t-shirt and a purple hat with his sunglasses neatly arranged, Kapanen easily stood out on Friday. But he stood out on the ice with the Penguins, too. It wasn’t always smooth sailing. Head coach Mike Sullivan benched him for the third period against the Islanders in mid-February.
And then Kasperi Kapanen roared back after a little chat with Sullivan. He scored 14 points (5-9-14) in his next 13 games.
Overall, Kapanen scored 30 points (11-19-30) in 40 games but, more importantly, finally found a home with the Penguins. After finding the pine and being shuffled up and down the lineup under Mike Babcock and Sheldon Keefe in Toronto, Kapanen was planted in the Pittsburgh Penguins top-six. He was responsible for scoring goals. He was not a spare part but an important piece.
Babcock is notoriously difficult on some players. He can suck the fun out of things if you’re one of those players.
Conversely, the topic of Mike Sullivan brightened up Kapanen, who clearly enjoys his new coach.
“I think he’s a great coach. I think he’s done a tremendous job with everybody here,” Kapanen concluded. It’s an unbelievable organization…I’m just lucky to be here. I think this is a very good team. So I think the future for us is very bright.”
Kapanen’s journey home to the team that drafted him in the first round of the 2014 draft has been a winding road. He had to fight to make the Toronto Maple Leafs for a few seasons. He didn’t get a regular lineup spot until 2018-19, despite making his NHL debut in 2015-16. That was a long three years that Toronto and Babcock made him toil, back and forth from the AHL.
And just when he thought he arrived with 20 goals in 2018-19, Babcock was relieved of his duties. New coach Sheldon Keefe used Kapanen in a bottom-six role for most of last season.
And then he got to play with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. That’s an upgrade, and you can understand why Kapanen so embraced the team and his role.