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Malkin-Kessel Breakup is Good for the Penguins



PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 07: Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Phil Kessel (81) skates with the puck during the first period. The Washington Capitals went on win 2-1 in the overtime period against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs on May 7, 2018, at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, PA. The Capitals won the series 4-2 and advance to the Eastern Conference Final. (Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire)

Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin got their wish and have played together this season. Malkin especially has posted big numbers with 20 points (7g 13a) in 13 games and is fifth among the NHL scoring leaders with games in hand on many of his competitors. Kessel was also among the leaders until the last few games.

And those last few games are haunting the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan went for broke when paired prolific scoring right wing Kessel with center Malkin, this season. The pair’s separation late last season and in the playoffs reportedly caused some complaint, though all sides publicly dismissed those reports including one from Pittsburgh Hockey Now. The move sparked Malkin and Kessel but the cost has been a bereft third line.

Kessel is the one player who can help the third line. The only player.

The Penguins’ third line was briefly a success led by Matt Cullen but the 42-year-old was tasked with over 15 minutes per night and the line with Riley Sheahan on the left side and Patric Hornqvist on the right was a noticeable negative in two games against the Islanders, last week.

So the Penguins reverted to Sheahan as the third line center. Sheahan has just one goal and one assist in 13 games.

Sheahan’s individual statistics are not good. Really, not good. He is near the bottom in Corsi rating (41 percent) and has been on the ice for only 26 percent goals-for. Sheahan has driven less offense this season than ill-fated fill-in Greg McKegg did last season.

Less offense and percentages than Gregg McKegg, whom the Penguins demoted and later dealt away in a minor move. Let that sink in.

Phil Kessel to the rescue.

Last season, Kessel was able to drive offense beside Riley Sheahan in a way no player has before, including Sheahan’s time in Detroit. In nearly 288 minutes together, Kessel and Sheahan were on the ice for 17 goals and allowed 17 goals. While “even” is not usually a celebratory level, it was an improvement for both. And for Sheahan, it was a huge step up in production.

Without Kessel, Sheahan was on the ice for only 20 goals in nearly 570 minutes (All stats according to Kessel and Sheahan also converted nearly as many high-danger chances (9) in their limited time as Sheahan did full-time (10).

Yes, Phil Kessel to the rescue.

Malkin and Kessel may enjoy playing together, but as Evgeni Malkin explained in September, “The coaches aren’t always happy.” And in the past several games, Malkin and Kessel have been frustrated by opponents. It’s impossible to declare that frustration spread, but it sure didn’t help.

And the other plus side to the Malkin-Kessel breakup is the reunification of one of the best lines in hockey last season: Carl Hagelin-Evgeni Malkin-Patric Hornqvist. The trio was spectacular.

“I know that when that line was together, (Malkin) had 21 goals in 22 games,” said Sullivan.

Pittsburgh Hockey Now broke down, in depth, the dynamism of the line. In fact, we did several times over the summer.

Here in the Evgeni Malkin report card. And here in the Hagelin contract analysis. PHN will further explore the reunification of Hagelin-Malkin-Hornqvist, as well.



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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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