With Patric Hornqvist’s goal in the third period Sunday night, the number of highly paid Pittsburgh Penguins right wings who haven’t scored since the eighth grade picnic was reduced to a lonely one. Only Phil Kessel remains as a Penguin who is expected to contribute goals but has instead posted goose eggs.
Kessel presents a complicated game to analyze. He is producing points. He has five assists in his past five games, including a couple of multi-point games. Kessel must be playing well because he’s scoring points!
“You can’t always control whether it goes into the net or not. All you can control is the process. It’s about playing the game the right way,” said coach Mike Sullivan when Pittsburgh Hockey Now asked about Kessel’s dry spell.
Sunday night, Kessel’s play was rewarded with the second-fewest shifts of his season and second-lowest ice time total (13:11). Despite a two-goal lead for most of the game and a three-goal lead for most of the third period, Kessel didn’t see much ice.
Therein lies the difficulty of Phil Kessel; the biggest Penguins enigma since Alexei Kovalev’s white skates graced the ice of the Civic Arena. However, when he wanted it, Kovalev had a complete game including some measure of physicality. He could be a bull.
Meanwhile, Kessel, as my grandfather used to say, is being a bit bullheaded (translated from rural Pennsylvania, it means stubborn). Specifically, Kessel is still forcing plays that are not available. He’s trying to carry the puck through defenders because that’s what he’s always been able to do.
But the game has changed on Kessel, who seems slow to recognize or accept the evolving parameters of his game. To be clear, Phil Kessel hasn’t lost a step, but opponents have gained two. Kessel’s struggles are almost entirely mental.
For example, Sunday night Kessel slipped through two defenders at the blue line while his team went through a line change. The smart, prudent play is to shovel the puck deep into the zone and change, too. If you’re feeling adventurous, hang onto it and give back to the defensemen when they are replaced and in position.
Kessel instead carried it into the zone. It was a low percentage play with a high risk. It’s the same play which has burned him all season. He was marginally successful because he entered the zone and zipped a long wrist shot on net. His odds of scoring were near zero. The downside of trying that play was exemplified Friday night. Kessel did the same thing twice at the red line. The second attempt led the Nashville transition to offense and Nashville scored a goal in the first three minutes of the game.
Sunday night, Sullivan defined what it means for Kessel to play the right way: “Making good decisions with the puck, supporting his linemates with the breakout, supporting his linemates down in the offensive zone.”
Kessel picked a few spots Sunday night when he exemplified those attributes, at least to a degree of success. But the harsh truth is, we’ve lowered the bar so far for Kessel that any adherence to the honest hockey Sullivan referenced is seen as a great victory.
Kessel is still defaulting to the open style, spread breakouts. He isn’t venturing into the dirty areas with enough regularity even when his linemates have the puck. It was glaring in the first two periods Sunday night. Nick Bjugstad and Dominik Simon created turnovers and pressure, but they didn’t always have the third stick in the battle.
The times when Kessel joined the parade were noticeable. Just as the times he didn’t.
“The games, the way they’re being played right now, there’s not a lot of space. There’s not a lot of room. The game is played in traffic,” Sullivan said. “And you need to stay close when the puck is up for grabs so that you don’t get outnumbered on the puck.”
Sure, sometimes Kessel joined the fray. And when he did, success followed. For a rose by any other name, criticism would follow for the times he did not. Instead, we’ve praised Kessel for the moments of honest hockey.
It’s time for more honest hockey — a lot more. And less stubbornness with the puck.
“Those are the things we’ve been talking with Phil about to help him play the game cooperatively with his linemates,” Sullivan said before affirming Kessel’s value. “Phil is always a threat when he’s on the ice. He has that quick-strike capability to score, and he has to stay with it.”
Kessel has 70 giveaways this season, the third most in his career and most as a Penguin. He will need to adapt quickly and recognize the limits of the game. A season can end on a bad turnover at this time of year.
For Kessel, his goalless streak is not about physical skills. It’s mental.