ALRIGHT- Let me set the record straight. When it comes to Phil Kessel, I am about as neutral as they come. I cheer and praise his great plays and goal scoring. I complain to high heaven when "The Red Panda" drags his paws or misses wide-open nets. I neither absolutely love nor absolutely loathe him but yes, lately he had been getting under my skin JUST a tad more than I would have liked. I am not ashamed to admit that and I am sure there are some that feel the same.
HOWEVER- in the past 10 days I have seen an (almost) completely new player. He is making plays all over the ice, getting deep into the zone to dig out the puck, and is playing harder than I have seen all season. I am as happy as can be that, like his team, Phil is moving in the right direction.
To say this season has been less than what was projected would be a vast understatement. We all know the who's and what's and why's that brought Kessel here to Pittsburgh so I am not going to go into all of that. Everyone knows what was expected and for a while the results were disappointing. His goals came sporadically, his frustration was apparent which lead to poor decisions (and possibly account for the bad aim) but it is hard to build chemistry on a line when your (former) coach is moving everyone around all the time. Being able to have a familiarity with your line mates helps plays to develop. Instincts kick in and trust builds.
There was also no one on the team, at the time, that could match his speed (except Kris Letang but he is on defence). Kessel would leave the other winger gasping for breath from going full bore just to keep up. Slowing himself down caused mistakes.
To put it simply it was mediocrity with bursts of brilliance. That is not enough to be a viable asset to a team struggling for a winning season. It had many fans wondering if it would be "one (year) and done" for the Wisconsin native. An eventual coaching change brought new eyes to the Kessel situation and head coach Mike Sullivan wanted his message loud and clear: "Do it the RIGHT WAY".
The trade of Adam Clendenning and David Peron to Anaheim brought the speedster, Carl Hagelin, to Pittsburgh. Though it took some time to find a rhythm, it is safe to say that Kessel has met his on-ice soul mate. At the very least someone who could match, if not exceed, his speed. Yet Phil still struggled to score. It wasn't for lack of opportunity, but every time, his shot would either swing wide or *CLANG*, off the post. We won't even talk about missing wide-open nets. Kessel has a powerful shot (if you don't believe it see the clip below or ask Carolina Hurricane's goalie, Cam Ward, who's helmet went flying after taking a rocket shot off the face). When it is on target, it is
deadly but lately, the only thing deadly was the glare coming from the eyes of a less-than-pleased head coach.
What more is a coach supposed to do to send a message? The only things you can do when you have a depleted bench- you cut the ice time. After a disappointing loss to the Islanders, Kessel saw only (roughly) 15 minutes of ice time against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Against the New York Rangers, Kessel saw only 13 minutes of ice time almost none of which came in the 3rd period. He was also removed from the (already dismal) power play.
It seems as if the message has been received.
Now on a line centred by Nick Bonino (in the absence of Evgeni Malkin who is still week-to-week), it seems a spark has ignited and it is a fire as red as Phil's hair and beard. The second line is once again a force to be reckoned with and Phil is a big part of that equation. Though recently voted the "NHL's most over-rated player" in a (laughable) poll, Kessel currently holds a 2 point lead over the so-called "Canadian Dream"- everyone's 2nd favourite Chicago Blackhawk, Jonathan Toews. He also was just named this weeks NHL 3rd star for his outstanding performance the week prior tallying 2 goals/5 assists for 7 points within 3 games. AND did I mention he scored the game-winning shoot out goal against the Sabres (3/29) and a beauty it was (clip below):
With 6 games left in the regular season, Kessel could at least put up a 25 goal season. Add in playoffs and it could easily be 30+. I am pleased to see that, like his team, Phil Kessel has not thrown in the towel and is once again showing what he can bring to the table. He is playing what Mike Sullivan called "he best he has seen him all year" and it comes at the most opportune time.
He now has the opportunity to prove to the nay-sayers that they have been wrong about him and show he was worth everything that as given up to bring him here...that is, as long as he can stay hot for the remaining games and playoffs. Is Phil the Thrill really back up to form? Will he be effected if/when Malkin is thrown back onto the line? I will personally remain neutral in my stance for now but whatever is to come, it looks like Phil is finally having fun and enjoying being a Pittsburgh Penguin.