PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins fans will not let anyone forget Phil Kessel is a two-time Stanley Cup champion and beloved fan icon. Thursday night against Vegas, Kessel burst through the Vegas Golden Knights defense for hat trick including a couple of breakaway goals and left with hundreds of hats from those fans in the Penguins 4-2 win over Vegas at PPG Paints Arena.
Kessel tied the game eight minutes into the first period which a quick snipe through traffic which Vegas goaltender Malcolm Subban never saw. Penguins center Evgeni Malkin, who earned the primary assist on each Kessel marker, won the faceoff in the offensive zone back to Kessel who whipped it through a mass of bodies.
Vegas was dominating the second period but Malkin and Kessel hooked up again, nine minutes into the period. As Malkin chased a loose puck in the defensive zone, Kessel broke to center ice. Malkin won the race to the puck and snapped a nearly 100-foot pass ahead to Kessel behind the Vegas defense. Kessel beat Subban top shelf.
Six minutes later, Kessel received a generation donation of ball caps, tossel hats and any other headwear available as he again broke behind the Vegas defenders, with another brilliant headman pass from Malkin, and beat Subban on another breakaway. It was 3-1 and the adoring Penguins fans roared their approval.
Before the crowd finished expressing their admiration, Penguins left winger Jake Guentzel ripped a wrist shot past Subban for a 4-1 lead.
Vegas, who lost to Washington Wednesday night 5-2, was done. However, a chant which could only occur in Pittsburgh broke out. The home crowd began chanting for the opponent’s back up goalie, former Penguins netminder Marc-Andre Fleury.
Yes. Not a jeer to Subban. Not a mocking chant for a goalie the Penguins have tortured. But a plea to Vegas coach Girard Gallant to insert Fleury so the crowd 17,000 strong could again watch one of their all-time favorites play. The chant was not short-lived, nor did it occur only once. The chant resurrected early in the third period as well.
Vegas forward Reilly Smith scored with over six minutes to play but the game was largely decided, even if the Penguins did not bring their A-game.
“This team is capable of getting to another level,” said Sullivan who didn’t feel the Penguins had enough puck possession but he did laud his team’s effort. “We didn’t have our swagger, but guys are trying to do the right things.”
The Penguins defense was markedly improved from their effort in the 5-1 loss to Montreal, Saturday. Justin Schultz, who had two assists and a +1 rating, admitted an improved effort but also wasn’t as enthusiastic about the effort.
“It was better. It was an improvement, but still a ways to go,” Schultz.
Juuso Riikola made his NHL debut, as well. Riikola played over 18 minutes without a point but was often at the center of the action. PHN has a shift by shift analysis of Riikola coming up, Friday morning. The Penguins gave Riikola sheltered minutes. He often played against the Vegas fourth line, which features former Penguins tough guy Ryan Reaves. After Riikola had a big first period, Vegas ramped up their physical pressure on Riikola. PHN asked Riikola if he noticed the player tugging on his sweater behind the play was the infamous Reaves.
“We played against each other a lot. And…it was fun,” laughed Riikola.
Penguins backup goalie Casey DeSmith made his first start of the season as Matt Murray is out with a concussion. DeSmith made a mark and stopped 35 of 37 shots.
“He was the best player on the ice,” Sullivan boldly declared. “He made timely saves for us.”
Indeed, it was a fun night to conclude the Penguins three-game homestand. The Penguins are in Montreal, Saturday.