The Pittsburgh Penguins came out sluggish during their Thursday night tilt against the Vegas Golden Knights and found themselves down 1-0 after a Tomas Nosek backhander trickled by Casey DeSmith. The Penguins were being outplayed and heavily outshot, and looked like they were on the verge of being blown out in their own barn and falling to 1-2-0 on the season.
Enter Phil Kessel.
Kessel potted three straight goals for the natural hat trick and ended up propelling the Penguins by the Golden Knights for a huge victory. Kessel showed outstanding breakaway speed on two of the goals, and Golden Knights goaltender Malcolm Subban had no answer for his wicked wrister.
Phil Kessel, scoring machine.
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) October 12, 2018
When it comes to the Penguins, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang usually steal the headlines and get the majority of the credit for the offensive firepower that the team brings to the ice every night. But when you really break it down, this offense only goes as far as Kessel takes them. He is the catalyst to this offense and a key reason why they have won the Stanley Cup in two of the last three seasons.
When Kessel Produces, the Penguins Win
Even at the ripe age of 30 years old, Kessel had a career year statistically last season. He finished with career highs in assists (58), points (92), and penalty minutes (36), and also led the team in power-play points (42). For someone who is a second-line winger on paper, Kessel is the guy that makes this team tick.
It’s no surprise that Kessel led the team in power-play points, considering they started using him as the entry man on the first unit. A job that was once reserved for Letang or Crosby, the Penguins have trusted Kessel more and more with their entries when they are a man up, and once they enter the zone, they are almost impossible to defend.
To really demonstrate how important Kessel’s production is related to the team’s success, the Penguins were an astounding 22-2-1 in the regular season last year in games where Kessel registered two or more points. On the contrary, the Penguins were 9-13-3 when he didn’t register a point. He is the difference between them being a fringe playoff team and one of the favorites to win the Eastern Conference.
Getting Better With Age
In today’s game where the league seems to be getting younger and younger, players tend to hit their prime in their late-20s and then it’s a steady decline until they either retire or can no longer hack it. (from ‘The modern NHL is a young man’s league. And it’s getting younger. And better,’ Washington Post – 10/4/17) When it comes to Kessel, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The 30-year-old appears to only be getting better with age.
Since being traded to the Penguins in 2015, Kessel has played three full seasons with the team and his point total has increased each year. After 59 points in his initial season, he improved to 70 points during the 2016-17 campaign, then showed an even greater improvement by tallying a career-high 92 points last year.
Just a handful of games into the season, Kessel seems to already be hitting his stride, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see him make a run toward a 100-point season – something that was only accomplished by Connor McDavid, Claude Giroux, and Nikita Kucherov last year. His chemistry with linemates Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin has seemed to jump to another level and with his continued success on the power play, the century mark is definitely within reach.
Iron Man Phil
One of the main reasons why Kessel is such an important piece of the Penguins’ offense is the fact that he can be counted on to be in the lineup every night. Unlike his superstar counterparts Crosby and Malkin, Kessel has been able to consistently stay injury free and has remarkably played in nearly 700 consecutive games. Keith Yandle and Patrick Marleau are the only two active NHL players who have an iron man streak longer than Kessel.
While he may not have the flash of Crosby, the speed of Hagelin, or the hands of Letang, his consistent presence in the lineup every night means that the Penguins have a great chance of winning night in and night out.
The craziest thing about Kessel’s iron man streak is that the all-time record for consecutive games played, which is 964 and held by Doug Jarvis, is realistically in reach. He would have to remain injury-free through three more seasons and then would be on pace to break it during the 2021-22 campaign at the age of 34.
The Quest for Three in Four
After the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009, it appeared that all the pieces were in place and that they were ready to begin a dynasty; however, they were quickly exposed year after year and only managed to reach the Eastern Conference Final once – in 2013, where they were swept by the Boston Bruins – over the next six seasons.
There were many reasons why they struggled to get back to the dance, some more apparent than others, but the biggest reason was arguably their lack of depth up front. Opposing teams figured out that if they could shut down Crosby and Malkin, and minimize their time spent in the penalty box, the Penguins were beatable. When Kessel was traded to the Penguins in July of 2015, general manager Jim Rutherford was sending a message to the NHL that he was ready to get his team back to the Stanley Cup Final.
Kessel’s impact on the organization was immediate. In his first year with the team, he led them to a Stanley Cup championship. In the postseason, he led the team in points with 22 and could have easily been awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, but it was instead awarded to Crosby.
Kessel was just as important in the postseason during the Penguins’ quest for back-to-back championships the next year. He ended up posting 23 points in the 2017 playoffs en route to a second straight title.
In the postseason last year, Kessel struggled, scoring only one goal in 12 games and proving that he needs to play well if the Penguins are going to be successful. He just couldn’t get anything going in the second round against the Washington Capitals, as the Penguins were bounced from the playoffs after losing the series in six games.
Coming into this year, Kessel cracked a few jokes with the media about how he spent his offseason, but he has certainly appeared to be his normal self on the ice. After his hat trick against the Golden Knights, Kessel now has five points in the Penguins’ first three games.
When you ask the average hockey fan to name off a few players for the Penguins, chances are that the first two names they rattle off are Crosby and Malkin, with maybe a Matt Murray or a Letang thrown in there, but Kessel is the heartbeat of this team and they will only go as far as he allows them to go. Being the catalyst of an offense is a lot of pressure, but Kessel has proven that he can be relied on in the most pressure-filled situations, and if he continues to play as well as he has, there is a high possibility that the Penguins will be lifting the Stanley Cup for the third time in four years.