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PHN Extra: How Can Phil Kessel Get the Thrill Back?

After a career-best 92 points in the regular season, the right-side sniper hasn’t maintained that pace.

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It’s gotten to the point of noteworthiness. After a regular season in which he finished in the top 10 in league scoring with a career-best 92 points, Phil Kessel hasn’t been able to maintain that pace in the playoffs.

Although he recorded a power-play assist in Tuesday’s Game 3 home loss to the Capitals, Kessel has posted six points and only one goal through the first nine games of his third Stanley Cup run as a Penguin. That’s tied for 42nd on the playoff scoring list.

In the context of a 2016 postseason in which Kessel arguably was robbed of the Conn Smythe Trophy — thanks, Sid! — and a 2017 playoff in which he churned out 23 points in 25 games, this is different.

While Kessel is one big game from being right on last year’s scoring pace, the look of his game has been off, to the point that multiple people per day are asking me where his injury is located. (Folks, I’m not in the business of embargoing information!)

Kessel added more fuel to health-related speculation by being one of many Penguins to sit out Wednesday’s optional practice in Cranberry Township. To my knowledge, Kessel hasn’t participated in any on-ice work that wasn’t mandatory for the past several weeks, but that’s not terribly uncommon for him during his time in Pittsburgh.

Fixing Phil a Priority

Mike Sullivan fielded a question about Kessel’s so-so performance after Game 3. Sullivan said he and a couple of other coaches had a chat with Kessel on Tuesday morning on the subject of his style of play in this series.

“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.”

Among Penguins, only Carter Rowney and Sheahan have a worse five-on-five shot share in this series than Kessel’s 43 percent. On the topic of linemates, Kessel was working with Riley Sheahan and Zach Aston-Reese to start Game 3, or at least that was Kessel’s line until Tom Wilson did his thing.

Although the Kessel and Evgeni Malkin ended up with a few shifts later late Tuesday, Sullivan didn’t immediately go to that configuration with Malkin returning from a three-game injury absence. The coaching staff also didn’t turn to the Derick Brassard-Kessel combination which, as I examined two weeks ago, hasn’t been very productive.

Perhaps a Phil ‘n Geno combo for Game 4 could be the ticket, considering Brassard and Conor Sheary had another encouraging game together (58 percent combined shot share in series, 56 percent chance share) despite no goals. Sheary rang the post off a setup from Brassard in the second period, but the fact remains they’ve combined for just five points in the playoffs.

“They had a few shifts where it looked like they were a threat, but they didn’t score,” Sullivan said Tuesday.

Calling for Depth

There are worse problems to have than a top line carrying the load like the Jake GuentzelSidney CrosbyPatric Hörnqvist trio continues to do. They’ve been on the ice for all six of the Penguins’ even-strength goals in this series, so good for them. Malkin’s return wasn’t a panacea, but it re-establishes the Penguins as the three-line (maybe four-line?) team they’re designed to be.

Malkin was also the only Penguins forward  who was able to help Kessel generate a positive shot share in Game 3, with three attempts for and two against. We’re talking minuscule samples at this point, but this is what we have to work with in the context of this particular matchup. Then there’s the Malkin-Kessel track record from the past two seasons.

Furthermore, with Crosby’s line humming to this degree, it might not take much more to put the Penguins back in charge of this series. And if you buy into the storyline that Kessel is physically compromised in some way, he might need more help than Sheahan is able provide at even strength.

After his team’s most gutting loss of the playoffs, Sullivan didn’t sound like a guy who’s done searching for solutions, either.

“We’ll sit down as a coaching staff,” he said Tuesday night, “and see if we can put together some combinations that might help.”

With Carl Hagelin looking uncertain to return for Game 4 and Aston-Reese out for the foreseeable future, the one-line offense of the first three games doesn’t appear tenable for what might be the pivotal game of these playoffs for the Penguins.

WATCH PARTY! Join PHN’s Matt Gajtka and Dan Kingerski at Southern Tier Brewing on Pittsburgh’s North Shore for Game 4 on Thursday night. The crew will be there at 6 pm. Please stop by to watch the game with fellow subscribers. Guests and friends welcome!

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A lifelong hockey addict, Matt has been fortunate enough to make his career in his sport of choice, working in high school, juniors, college and the pros in various multimedia roles. Previous to joining PHN, Matt was a credentialed Penguins/NHL beat reporter for the past two seasons, including coverage of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. He signed on with PHN in Feb. 2018 as co-owner, contributing commentary and analysis in various forms.

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