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Playoffs? Penguins Desperately Need the Best from Phil Kessel, Now

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PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 14: Pittsburgh Penguins Right Wing Phil Kessel (81) brings the puck up ice during the first period in the NHL game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Boston Bruins on December 14, 2018, at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, PA. (Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire)

Paging Phil Kessel. The Penguins desperately need your best. Now.

The Pittsburgh Penguins will play the Buffalo Sabres Friday night with a chance to effectively end Buffalo’s playoff hopes. The Penguins will play the Montreal Canadiens Saturday with an opportunity to leapfrog Montreal for the first wild-card position and put themselves in the Eastern Conference playoffs seedings. The Penguins trail the Carolina Hurricanes by one ROW (regulation, overtime win) and Columbus by one point.

Big weekend much?

With the spate of injuries which have wiped out the Penguins lineup, the team could march to Buffalo with a drum and fife. The Penguins are missing three of their top-six defensemen and rock-solid seventh defenseman Chad Ruhwedel. And utility knife and tenacious winger Bryan Rust, too.

The Penguins defense is battered and consequently trying to integrate newly acquired Erik Gudbranson into a second pairing role, despite his skill set and career arc lending itself to third pairing duty.

You can shake your fists and bemoan Jack Johnson, Gudbranson and Jim Rutherford (a tiresome refrain if there ever was). That certainly diverts attention from the one player Penguins fans refuse to criticize. The hard reality is the Pittsburgh Penguins need their dynamic duo of Malkin-Kessel to be again dynamic.

And Phil Kessel cannot toil in the shadows or only perk up for power plays. It’s “go” time and Kessel needs to own his share.

The stats on Kessel (if we can diverge from Gudbranson’s for a moment) are eye-popping. Phil Kessel has just 107 shots at even strength in 63 games. He has taken more than one shot in only three of his last 13 games (including power play and overtime shots). The last time Kessel lit the lamp was Jan. 30 against Tampa Bay.

This season Kessel turned the puck over 40 times at even strength and has drawn just one penalty (which means he isn’t pressuring opponents or forcing them to defend him nearly often enough).

Kessel is not a secondary scoring option for the Penguins. He is a primary option and the Penguins can’t afford to carry him. Certainly not now. Head coach Mike Sullivan grew tired of Kessel’s culpability in allowing a league-leading 13 shorthanded goals and has recently moved Kessel to the second power-play unit.

Not that power plays will be abundant for the rest of the season, anyway. We’ve entered the stretch where officials manage the game. Most nights teams will get only a couple cracks with a man advantage unless the calls are egregious or automatic.

Sidney Crosby has been carrying the Penguins forwards this season. He has 77 points (27g, 50a) in 60 games, including eight points in his last five games. Crosby and Jake Guentzel are also on paths to post eye-popping numbers. Guentzel has 29 markers and could hit 40 goals. Crosby should surpass 100 points. But stats mean nothing without a playoff ride.

Now that hockey is serious, teams will blanket Crosby with even more vigor. And that means the shorthanded Penguins need Malkin and Kessel to take advantage of the defensive attention paid to Crosby. The Penguins will need goals, puck possession, and a lack of turnovers from the potentially dynamic duo.

Forwards must play with the puck and keep it in the offensive zone, even more so now to protect their defense. Each of the Penguins defensive pairings is now a patchwork job, which makes their recent suppression all the more incredible.

But it won’t last if the Penguins forwards don’t do their part, and more.

This season Malkin and Kessel have gone through a soul searching journey to find themselves and their game which would make Henry David Thoreau pause. While Malkin has emerged on the other side, Kessel is still lost in the trees. Even as he has accumulated 64 points, Kessel’s play has often been invisible or worse.

Kessel has one or fewer shots in 10 of his last 13 games, no goals in his last 13 games and turnovers. Oh, those turnovers. Kessel isn’t the type of player like Patric Hornqvist which helps his team without being on the scoresheet. He is the type of player which needs to fill that scoring sheet.

Oh, and for the advanced stats crowd which is fixated on Johnson and Gudbranson, Kessel’s Corsi rating is only 46 percent and he’s earned just 47 percent of the scoring chances, too.

The Penguins are nearly out of time. Every game they don’t win is lost points in a desperate playoff chase which makes their GM Jim Rutherford “nervous.” The Penguins cannot get a consistent effort with a hole in the middle of their lineup.

Only Phil Kessel can plug the hole. And the Penguins need him…Now.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now owner, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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