According to a source with knowledge of the situation, Pittsburgh Hockey Now has learned that Penguins rookie winger Daniel Sprong is under consideration to take Phil Kessel‘s spot in the Penguins lineup for Saturday’s Game 5 in Washington. The best-of-seven second-round Stanley Cup playoffs series between the Penguins and Capitals is tied at two games apiece.
PHN was told that Penguins coaches suggested to Kessel that he take the morning skate at Capital One Arena if he was healthy enough to play. While the skate was optional, Kessel did indeed take part. The prevailing thought is that Kessel has aggravated an injury which he suffered in the regular season, but the team won’t confirm or deny, as is custom in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
While Kessel has picked up a power-play assist in each of the past two games, he hasn’t seemed himself in these playoffs, scoring just one goal in 10 games. He has as many turnovers (five) in the series as he does shots on goal (five). The man with one of the best shots in the NHL had five total attempts over the past two games, including only one on goal in Thursday’s Game 4 win.
If Kessel sits, it would be quite the event. The man with the NHL’s longest consecutive-games streak hasn’t spent a game in the press box — regular season or playoffs — since the 2009-10 season.
PHN’s source describes the coaching staff’s mood on a possible move as “conflicted,” both because of Kessel’s iron-man track record and the fact that he’s been largely a non-factor at even strength.
In an attempt to get Kessel going, Sullivan has played his top gunner with three different centers in these playoffs: Evgeni Malkin, Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan. Kessel played just a couple of shifts in Thursday’s third period with the Penguins protecting a one-goal lead. Only Conor Sheary had fewer shifts (13) than Kessel’s 16 in Game 4.
Mike Sullivan was asked what’s ailing Kessel after Tuesday’s Game 3 loss, but the coach talked style, not health.
“We just talked to him about moving his feet and getting closer to the puck and coming across the ice and trying to play in the traffic a little bit,” Sullivan explained. “It’s been that type of a series. There’s not a lot of ice out there, so he’s got to embrace that challenge. We gave him some insights that’ll help him, and we’ll try to surround him with people that may help him.”
Apparently, Sullivan has reached a point where he’s looking for possible replacements for Kessel if he isn’t fit to play at some point. Considering Sprong plays the same right-wing position as Kessel and he has a similar sniping talent, he seems the best fit for that.
Before Game 4, sources inside the Penguins organization told PHN that Sprong would take the warmups and was under consideration for a game-time sweater, although Kessel wasn’t questionable for that particular tilt. The coaches opted for Dominik Simon, who played a stellar game while on Sidney Crosby’s line, earning an assist on Jake Guentzel‘s second-period goal.
Sprong was chosen for warmups and consideration ahead of other forwards with NHL experience such as Josh Jooris. Sprong skated with the big club again Saturday morning in anticipation of Game 5 at 7 p.m.
The Penguins are searching for offensive depth in this series. Their top line centered by Crosby with Jake Guentzel has scored all of the Penguins five-on-five goals against the Capitals. However, when asked about Sprong on Thursday morning, Sullivan searched for an answer and turned immediately to Sprong’s shot.
“Daniel had a real good second half in Wilkes-Barre,” Sullivan said. “His shot is obviously one of his biggest assets. His scoring ability. He’s a dangerous scorer.”
Sullivan paused, searching for the right words.
“We’ve talked a lot with Daniel about puck support. Supporting the puck. Coming closer to it. The spacing between him and his linemates. And how to support the puck in that aspect of his game.”
Sprong, 21, who tormented coaches with defensive confusion and indifference in his first full professional season was even a mid-season healthy scratch for the Penguins AHL affiliate. Yet the talented winger also scored at a point per game pace in the AHL, with 65 points (32 goals, 33 assists). To finish the accolades, Sprong played in the AHL All-Star game and was named to the AHL All-Rookie team.
His play down the stretch offered hope to the organization.
“(Mark Recchi) has spent a lot of time, one on one, when he’s been up here,” Sullivan said. “(AHL coach Clark Donatelli)’s staff has spent a lot of time with him when he’s been in Wilkes-Barre, so we like the overall growth of his game. He’s a guy our organization is very excited about.”
Sprong was the Penguins second-round choice (No. 46 overall) and first selection in 2015. He stuck with the Penguins for the first few months of the 2015-16 season and played 18 games before being returned to his junior team. Sprong scored only two goals and no assists in those games.
Sprong rejoined the Penguins after the conclusion of his junior season but a severe shoulder injury while part of the 2016 ‘Black Aces.’ (The Black Aces are the Penguins practice squad, comprised of minor league and extra players who scrimmage and practice separately of the team to stay ready in case needed during playoff runs.) The injury required surgery and cost him most of last season.
This season has been, in part, a struggle for Sprong. The Penguins recalled Sprong in January, and he played eight games. However, after three scoreless games beside Crosby, Sprong scored three points in one game (two goals) against the Islanders in Brooklyn, N.Y. Sprong went scoreless in the next four games and was returned to the AHL.
Dan Kingerski contributed to this report.