They are the Oscar and Felix of the Pittsburgh Penguins. No two players could be more different than the straight-laced, hard-working, intensely driven Sidney Crosby and the sloppy, happy-go-lucky always in search of a hat, Phil Kessel.
Sidney Crosby must speak carefully because he often speaks for an entire league and sometimes a country. Phil Kessel is free to fill the Stanley Cup with hot dogs on the golf course.
Yet the pair might be the tonic for what has ailed Penguins.
When PHN asked Crosby about playing with Kessel in the Penguins 6-2 win over the New York Islanders, Crosby dove into a detailed analysis of Kessel’s game.
“You know how Kessel plays. He’s really gifted with the puck, he makes really good plays and passes,” said Crosby. “He’s really good at reading where he needs to be on the ice, whether that’s high in the scoring position or off to the side of the net.”
Crosby also paid Kessel a serious compliment, “He’s just really smart. He knows where to go to score goals.” (Watch the full Crosby media chat here).
Being smart is a prerequisite to playing with Crosby. There once was a cavalcade of wingers brought in on the cheap who had natural offensive ability but could not keep up with Crosby. Decorum prevents listing them all here. One after the other failed.
In typical fashion, Kessel was more understated when asked about Crosby, “you watch him out there, he’s special. The things he does like that goal (Thursday night), it’s impressive.”
With Dominik Simon injured Tuesday against Colorado and Patric Hornqvist injured in the first period against New York Islanders, Thursday, the Penguins were down to just two right wings and so it was inevitable Kessel saw some time with Crosby.
Some turned into a lot.
“I thought when Sid, Jake (Guentzel), and Phil played together, they were really good,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. “And so we stayed with it for the rest of the game.”
And the Penguins should continue to stick with it.
In brief moments this season, Kessel joined Jake Guentzel and Sidney Crosby and the combination produced palpable results. According to NaturalStatTrick.com, in just 21 minutes together this season, the trio has scored five goals. To extrapolate that into a single game, that’s about three or four goals if the line plays 12 to 16 minutes at even strength.
That’s how good they’ve been when accidentally thrown together.
Crosby and Kessel teamed up for three goals, Thursday. Two at even strength. And a beauty on the power play. Actually, all three were beauties. That is the potential of the Crosby-Kessel tandem.
“You know how Kessel plays,” said Crosby.
Where it once failed, Crosby-Kessel could become spectacular in ways that Evgeni Malkin-Kessel could not.
When Malkin and Kessel are together, they are a time bomb. They score points. They also get enamored with their skill and make lateral plays when straight plays are needed. The make too many passes and give the puck away. And they occasionally forget about the defensive zone–last season, Malkin and Kessel allowed more goals than they scored.
When Malkin and Kessel go off the rails, they can derail the entire team. That wouldn’t happen with Crosby. Actually, none of that would happen often with Crosby.
On paper, Kessel’s shooting ability would raise Crosby’s assist total but as Crosby noted, Kessel’s playmaking skills have become a staple of his game, too. Kessel set up Crosby’s goal Thursday night with a hard charge into the Islanders end and a nice drop pass to Crosby as Kessel cleared the way. Though Kessel had a different recollection.
“I just like gave it to him and skated behind the net,” Kessel said. “I heard the horn and am like, ‘what happened here?’ right, you know?”
Crosby would provide the defensive grunt work and details which are sometimes missing from the Malkin-Kessel pairing. Crosby would also provide constant motivation for Kessel.
To dispel too many myths, Crosby does not pick his linemates. If he did, Patric Hornqvist wouldn’t be in the mix. Nor does Kessel get verbal input into his linemates, though his on-ice language does speak loudly when he isn’t thrilled.
The move would keep Hornqvist (when healthy) with Malkin and put Simon with Brassard. Both the Malkin-Hornqvist combination and the Brassard-Simon grouping have yielded results.
The offensive balance Sullivan has sought may have been staring at everyone all along. It’s time to unite the Penguins odd couple and see where it goes.