The Pittsburgh Penguins comfortably led the Carolina Hurricanes by three goals for the entirety third period, Saturday yet increasingly scrutinized Penguins winger Phil Kessel was essentially benched by the Penguins coaches. Kessel played a season-low 11:57, even as the Penguins controlled the game in the final 20 minutes.
Based on Kessel’s performance and recent trends, it’s hard to argue. Something just isn’t right.
Conversely, Penguins fourth line center Matt Cullen was relied upon heavily to defend the Carolina top line centered by prolific Sebastian Aho.
Cullen and his linemates Riley Sheahan and Zach Aston-Reese had 10 shifts in the final period. Kessel and fellow third line winger Tanner Pearson had five shifts including a pair of shifts under 20 seconds in the middle of the period. Kessel and Pearson did not see the ice in the final six minutes and played just 37 seconds in the last 15 minutes.
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan bluntly said last week, “Sometimes, the biggest hammer a coach has is ice time.”
The final full shift for Kessel was the second consecutive one in which the line spent more time behind its own blue line than the opponents. Kessel appeared to fly the zone leaving defenseman Brian Dumoulin without an outlet pass as two forecheckers converged. Kessel returned to help but then meekly turned the puck over at the Penguins blue line, which led to a high-danger Carolina scoring chance.
On the shift prior, Cullen and crew created a few scoring chances, and Aston-Reese hit the post as they pinned the Carolina top line in their own zone.
For most of the period, when Aho hit the ice, so did Cullen.
Sullivan has increasingly used their fourth line centered by Cullen as a defensive weapon. The team did so on the perfect Canadian road trip in October. Thursday night, Cullen’s line defended the Minnesota top line and later in the period, they defended Minnesota’s second line centered by Mikko Koivu, after that line had momentum. The Penguins won, 2-1.
So as Cullen’s line grabbed ice time, the Penguins took it from Pearson-Brassard-Kessel and re-gifted it to their fourth line. Brassard did not get a lot of ice time in the third period, either but he did get work in the final minutes. Kessel did not.
The Kessel benching comes on the heels of former player Pascal Dupuis’ comments to French media that Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel were not well receiving Sullivan’s messages.
Sullivan defended his relationship with Kessel and Malkin, and condemned the comments as “irresponsible.” Yet few could argue the players were not playing well, or properly.
Sullivan separated the pair against Minnesota. Malkin picked up. Kessel did not.
Kessel, in his fourth season with the Penguins, has just three even strength goals since Oct. 27. No, something isn’t right. As the Penguins are beginning to climb the standings and win hockey games, they are doing so largely without Kessel. The +/- stat is not the most accurate barometer of anything but it does measure team-play fairly well and Kessel is a minus-7 since Thanksgiving despite many teammates being on the plus side of the ledger.
Kessel’s giveaway and ho-hum effort as Carolina tried to get back into the game were enough for Sullivan. Kessel’s previous low ice time was 14:41 against Montreal back in just the second game of the season.
Let’s be honest, it’s no one’s fault but Kessel’s. He has now played multiple games on each of the top three lines, yet has receded on each. After a hot start with Crosby, Kessel faded into the background and was quickly moved. When Kessel chooses to play hard, those one-footed wrist shots from the circle which torture goaltenders are plentiful. Saturday night, Kessel unleashed one in the first period; it was the first in recent memory, but it was the only one. Regardless of the center, effort isn’t optional.
The Penguins coaches have largely acquiesced to Kessel to avoid creating a situation in which Kessel checks out. And so Saturday should raise an eyebrow. Going forward, will Kessel get pine time when he isn’t playing well? And how will he respond?
We’ll find out more about both sides on Dec. 27 against Detroit.