Kes­sel hasn’t ‘re­ally changed any­thing’ dur­ing March surge

Cape Breton Post - - SPORTS -

Phil Kes­sel shoves Ev­geni Malkin in the back. He’s got a dev­il­ish grin on his face as he jokes with the Rus­sian star while the Pen­guins pose for their team photo.

Nine months into his stint with the Pen­guins, Kes­sel is feel­ing at home in Pitts­burgh

“I think any­where you go in the NHL the team al­ways makes you feel wel­come and the play­ers al­ways make you feel wel­come,’’ Kes­sel said in an in­ter­view af­ter prac­tice on Wed­nes­day. “It was pretty quick that you felt wel­come and this is your new home.’’

Start­ing the year with only 21 points in his first 37 games, Kes­sel has rung up 33 points in his last 39 games. He’s played his best hockey with the club this month, post­ing 14 points in 15 games, in­clud­ing a ca­reer-high five in a re­cent win over Detroit.

Pen­guins coach Mike Sullivan has de­scribed his re­cent play as the best he’d seen from Kes­sel since re­plac­ing Mike John­ston be­hind the Pitts­burgh bench on Dec. 12, mar­vel­ling es­pe­cially at the 28-year-old winger’s pass­ing abil­ity.

Kes­sel, who joined the Pen­guins last sum­mer fol­low­ing a six-year run in Toronto, has been play­ing most of the sea­son with Malkin af­ter failed con­nec­tions with Sid­ney Crosby. He said the adapt­ing in Pitts­burgh wasn’t that dif­fi­cult, com­par­ing it to the an­nual ad­just­ment re­quired ev­ery fall when new ros­ters take shape.

Typ­i­cally re­luc­tant to delve into his own per­for­mance, Kes­sel also didn’t think much had changed re­cently de­spite the uptick in pro­duc­tion and a re­cent NHL third star of the week nom­i­na­tion.

“Same old stuff,’’ he said. “Just get­ting a lit­tle lucky right now.’’

“I haven’t re­ally changed any­thing,’’ Kes­sel con­tin­ued. “I’ve missed some chances this year also. They just went in the last cou­ple games.’’

Kes­sel’s last sea­son as a Leaf was also his worst. He sput­tered to 25 goals and 61 points fol­low­ing a 37-goal, 80-point per­for­mance one year ear­lier.

His per-minute pro­duc­tion is up across the board this sea­son, as are his puck pos­ses­sion num­bers. He none­the­less re­mains on pace for some of the slimmest of­fen­sive num­bers of his ca­reer even with the re­cent surge.

Kes­sel, cur­rently at 54 points with six games to go, could fin­ish with fewer than 60 points in a full sea­son for the first time since 2009-10, dur­ing which he played only 70 games. With 23 goals, he could miss the 25-goal mark in a full sea­son for the first time since he was a teenager in his sec­ond NHL cam­paign with the Bos­ton Bruins.

The scor­ing chances re­main, if not quite as fre­quent as dur­ing his younger years. Fac­ing the Sabres on Tues­day night, Kes­sel had one great chance streak­ing down the right side which was stopped by Buf­falo net­min­der Chad John­son. An­other ef­fort in tight on a Pen­guins power play was also turned aside.

His de­cline, as well as his lengthy con­tract (which has six more years), per­son­al­ity and the team’s de­ci­sion to re­build, were pri­mary in Toronto trad­ing him to Pitts­burgh last July.

Kes­sel was the first ma­jor domino to move in the Leafs over­haul, joined by Dion Pha­neuf seven months later.

“Once you get traded obvi- ously it’s over there,’’ Kes­sel said of Toronto. “I love the city. I had a lots of friends there. But this is a busi­ness so you just take it like that and you move on.’’

“Toronto will al­ways be home to me be­cause I was there so long,’’ he added. “I have tons of friends there and I think I’ll al­ways go back there and visit my friends.’’

The Pen­guins say he’s fit in nicely, per­haps bet­ter suited as a com­ple­men­tary piece rather than the pri­mary in­gre­di­ent he al­ways was in Toronto.

Pitts­burgh is also rolling as Kes­sel plays his best hockey. The team has the third-most points since Dec. 21 (shortly af­ter Sullivan’s hir­ing) and is es­pe­cially hot re­cently with wins in nine of the past 10 games, in­clud­ing a come­back shootout win against the Sabres.

Sneak­ing a shot past John­son in the shootout, Kes­sel helped seal the vic­tory, which fur­ther so­lid­i­fied the Pen­guins play­off chances. He’s not look­ing ahead to his first post-sea­son since 2013 though, hop­ing in­stead just to keep win­ning.

Kes­sel says his goals that way haven’t changed much in time. Save for a grad­u­ally de­clin­ing per­for­mance, not much has changed ev­i­dently for the per­son ei­ther.

AP PHOTO

Pitts­burgh Pen­guins’ Phil Kes­sel plays dur­ing a game against the New York Is­lan­ders in Pitts­burgh.

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