It should go without saying that the sport of hockey is never easy. It may seem simple when you watch professionals do it day in and day out, but it’s not a simple game. It’s especially not easy when there are certain expectations set for you. This is exactly how the first nine games of the season must have felt for Kasperi Kapanen.
While missing a pair of future Hall of Fame centers to start the season, along with a multitude of injury and COVID issues, the pressure was on Kapanen to perform at a whole new level. All eyes were on the young Finnish forward, and it was up to him to be a big part of early-season success.
Kapanen went scoreless through the first nine games of the season, the longest season-opening drought of his career. He recently found himself back on the goal sheet, but he waited a little longer than usual for it.
Before the puck dropped on the 2021-22 NHL season for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Kapanen was predicted to be, and pretty much expected to be, the team’s breakout star. That’s not an unfair statement. This is his first full season in Pittsburgh, coming after an interrupted year that saw him play in 40 games and score 30 points.
Going into the new season, it was a clean slate of games to work with and also familiarity with his teammates. Yes, 2020-21 was a great year, but people wanted Kapanen’s 2021-22 to be even better, and he expected the same of himself. During locker clean-out day, he spoke with media, and said he felt more comfortable and accepted in Pittsburgh.
With the Toronto Maple Leafs, Kapanen struggled to find a role. Mike Babcock and the Leafs would use Kapanen as a depth forward and a penalty killer. Sometimes they wouldn’t use him at all, and Kapanen would ride the pine. In Pittsburgh, though, head coach Mike Sullivan knows Kapanen’s real form is in a top-six role.
An extra ounce of pressure was added to Kapanen’s breakout season when the team announced that both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin would miss a period of time. There’s no doubt it takes a whole team to help fill the spots left by those two, but Kapanen was among the few expected to be a leader, especially as the season began and other key names fell to injury or COVID protocol. Bryan Rust sustained a lower-body injury. Kris Letang had a battle with COVID-19, and so did Jeff Carter, Marcus Pettersson, and Brian Dumoulin.
An elevated role during a new, longer season with a group he’s comfortable with. Seems like a recipe for a hot start, right?
Kapanen Is Going Through A Slump or A Slow Start, Right?
Wrong. Like mentioned, the expectations were high for Kapanen and sure, players will get off to slow starts at times, but this was a different level. Taking on the longest goalless drought to start a season in his career, the Penguins needed him to be better. He picked up four assists through the first five games; that’s not bad, but those disappeared, too. In the five games following his fourth assist, he hasn’t collected another helper.
Could you call it a slump if the player never got up to speed in the first place? Maybe it was just a slow start? Well, it was far too slow of a start. To make matters worse for the Penguins, there was another young star who was expected to fill the net without the veterans in the lineup that couldn’t find his touch. Jake Guentzel, who scored in his first game, only had that goal for the next six matches.
With Guentzel and Kapanen both not meeting their expectations to start the year, the Penguins were being led in points by Danton Heinen, Evan Rodrigues, and Drew O’Connor. The Penguins were finding ways to win decisively, but depth players leading the team’s scoring race isn’t a sustainable game plan.
Kapanen’s lack of goal scoring didn’t come from a lack of trying. Through the first nine games, he put up 25 shots on goal and was averaging 17:44 time on ice. Despite his best efforts during games, he found himself practicing with the fourth forward line, a spot he hadn’t seen in a game since arriving in Pittsburgh. Something was bound to give at some point, and finally, it happened.
Kapanen Turning it Around, Must Remain Consistent
There are some cliché sports sayings that are always spoken about when a player of Kapanen’s caliber is in a drought. Things like “all it takes is one,” or “he’s due for one,” or the ever-popular “get the monkey off their back.” Turns out for the Finnish forward, the quote that should have been getting used is “when it rains, it pours.”
After scoring no goals through the first nine games of the season, Kapanen finally found the back of the net in the 10th game. But he wasn’t done there. He scored not just one, not just two, but three goals to finally reach the score sheet again. While the Penguins as a whole couldn’t hold the lead with two seconds remaining in the game, Kapanen chose a great time to pot his first career hat trick.
To put things bluntly, this kind of play can’t stop there; it has to continue. Kapanen must now remain a consistent goal scorer if he wants to reach the expectations laid out for him, not just by fans and critics but by himself. A hat trick is nice and a great way to get the people amped about your play. It hurts that the team around him couldn’t conceal a win, but seeing Kapanen and Guentzel score goals builds confidence and raises hope.
The Penguins are still waiting for a fully healthy Malkin. Crosby played in a game but was immediately shut down after testing positive for COVID-19. The eyes draw back to Kapanen, and everyone has seen that he can still score. Now, it’s about regaining consistency.
Kapanen isn’t a perfect player, and the expectations are high, but he’s capable of passing that bar. Now that the monkey is off his back and the confidence has been built, it’s time to see if he truly is the breakout star people are saying he can be.
Nick Horwat is a graduate of Point Park University and was born and raised in Pittsburgh. A lifelong Penguins fan that has been watching and going to games for as long as he can remember.