The Pittsburgh Penguins lead the Stanley Cup Final 2-1, but have been outplayed in large stretches by the Nashville Predators. The Penguins lead, in part, because they have been the beneficiary of soft goaltending by Nashville backstop, Pekka Rinne. However, after a pair of big saves early in the second period of Game 3, first on Phil Kessel then on Chris Kunitz, Rinne appeared to find his game. Which means trouble for the Penguins and they’ll need more offense.
The Nashville Predators have four great defensemen. Sidney Crosby could be fitted for a suit of made of Ryan Ellis. Slim fit, too. Mattias Ekholm and P.K. Subban have agitated and nullified Evgeni Malkin.
The third leg of the Penguins stool is Phil Kessel. The right wing sniper is supposed to fill the net. It’s what he’s paid to do. His game has few other facets. He is, simply, a goal scorer…who isn’t scoring goals.
Since December 31, Kessel had just eight even strength goals. In these playoffs, two. Two even strength goals for a player paid eight million dollars (6.8 million dollar cap hit to the Penguins) to score goals. Two.
That’s not good enough. Not even close.
The number of shifts which Kessel coasts around the ice have become more noticeable. On the Game 1 overturned goal by P.K. Subban, Kessel had barely crossed the red line before the red light flashed. Kessel’s absence on the play gave Subban time and space to beat Matt Murray. This isn’t the only example.
That’s not good enough. Not even close.
But Phil Kessel has 20 points in 22 playoff games, you say!
The Penguins power play is in the midst of a remarkable dry spell. D-R-Y. They have just three shots on goal in their last 10 power plays (stick tap, Jason Mackey of the PG for the stat). How many open looks has Phil Kessel had, but not done enough? How many times has Kessel taken too long to shoot, allowing the fast Nashville penalty killers to converge?
Too many. That’s not good enough. Not even close.
Unfortunately, hockey is a 60 minute game and Kessel must play more than three or four minutes on the man advantage. More is needed.
Phil Kessel not only has but two even strength goals in the playoffs, he hasn’t had an even strength assist since Game 3, Round 2.
So while Nashville penalty killers converge on Malkin, hammer Crosby with such frequency that you can read “Easton” in the bruises, and put a face on Justin Schultz for every shot attempt, where is Kessel? While the slot is open, while the circle has space, where is Kessel?
Indeed, where is Phil Kessel?
There seems a stale element to Kessel’s game, now. Those rushes down the right wing and wicked wrist shot from the circle, which tortured goalies for years, no longer produce results. Goalies are wise to the Kessel hesitation and snap to the far post. The licorice stick Kessel uses to get amazing spin and burst on his shots now seems to telegraph his intentions to waiting goalies.
Kessel had three golden opportunities in Game 3. Each shot was textbook Kessel, low and to the far post. Rinne neatly turned aside, each. Kessel was also on the ice for a pair of Nashville goals–each a backbreaker–goals two and four. His collision with Chris Kunitz at the Predators blue line allowed Craig Smith a breakaway, for goal 4. Kessel had 0 shots in Game 1.
So, if he’s not filling the net, what is he doing to help his team?
Puck battles. Back checking. Going to the net. Finishing a check. Body up an open man in the defensive zone. These are things which players are expected to do, without question. Kessel is exempted from these chores because, until this season, he was one of the most prolific goal scorers of his generation.
Kessel is that good. Or at least he can be that good.
One can only wonder what an engaged Phil Kessel could do for his team. What if Phil actually played 200 feet with some consistency, or at least 180 feet? What if Phil Kessel dedicated himself to the job which pays him millions of dollars by getting in shape, occasionally risking his body as 19 of his teammates do, or at very least doing more of the little things which help teams win hockey games?
Kessel’s “every-man” quality resonates with fans. His treatment at the hands of the Toronto media was as shameful as anything in sports. It was equal to the Pittsburgh rumor mongering of Bill Cowher and Kordell Stewart in the late 1990’s.
Kessel’s coach, Mike Sullivan, has treated “Phil the Thrill” with kid gloves. Sullivan has said many times, “he’s competitive in his own way.”
While there is no reason to doubt Kessel’s commitment to his team, the actions speak loudly. The team leads the Stanley Cup Final, but is in a perilous position. The Penguins have been outplayed and counting on Rinne to hand them another game seems unlikely. Finding more space against the fast and hungry Predators, seems unlikely.
After three games, the series is–what it is. The battle lines are drawn. There are no more unknowns. Nashville has a tactical edge but the Penguins have a talent edge.
And it’s time for Kessel to contribute more of his talents. Or Kessel will no longer be a “Stanley Cup champion”.