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Kessel makes immediate impact in Coyotes debut

Gets assist, begins to build chemistry with top line during loss to Ducks

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

ANAHEIM -- Phil Kessel pulled a black Arizona Coyotes hat onto his head after his debut with his new team.

Arizona lost its season opener 2-1 to the Anaheim Ducks at Honda Center on Thursday. But Kessel scored his first point with the Coyotes, an assist on a pretty passing play.

And did he feel weird at all?

"Nah," the forward said with a little laugh. "Not really. I've done it before. We've got a good group in here, and I believe in us. I think we're going to be just fine."

Before Kessel was traded to Arizona by the Pittsburgh Penguins on June 29, he was traded to Pittsburgh by the Toronto Maple Leafs on July 1, 2015, and to Toronto by the Boston Bruins on Sept. 18, 2009.

He is in a different place this time, though, in several respects.

He's 32 years old entering his 14th NHL season. He's a two-time Stanley Cup champion with a long track record of offensive production.

Instead of being an elite complementary piece like he was in Pittsburgh, where he helped put superstar centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin over the top twice, in 2016 and 2017, he is the marquee name on a team that has gone seven seasons without making the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Not only is he expected to score, he is expected to elevate his teammates.

We saw a glimpse of that Thursday.

Kessel is playing right wing on the first line with left wing Clayton Keller and center Derek Stepan. Keller, 21, had 47 points (14 goals, 33 assists) last season, a step backward from 2017-18, his first full NHL season, when he had 65 points (23 goals, 42 assists). Stepan, 29, had 35 points (15 goals, 20 assists) last season, his lowest total in nine NHL seasons.

With the Coyotes trailing 1-0 in the second period, Keller took a pass from defenseman Jordan Oesterle in the neutral zone. He crossed the blue line on the right wing and centered a backhand pass past Ducks defenseman Josh Manson. Kessel had the puck on his backhand in the high slot with Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm in his path.

Kessel said the shooting lane was blocked and out of the corner of his eye he spotted Stepan streaking down the left wing ahead of Ducks forward Rickard Rakell. Stepan said he called for the puck and Kessel heard him.

Doesn't matter.

"That's something with the chemistry as we keep building, he knows that I'm there," Stepan said.

Video: ARI@ANA: Stepan one-times Kessel's feed

In a split second, Kessel put the puck on his forehand and passed it to Stepan, who one-timed the puck just ahead of the outstretched stick of Rakell. It flew under the crossbar before goalie John Gibson could slide across to his right.

Game tied 1-1.

"That's the sort of stuff that you're looking for from those type of people, scoring off the rush like that," coach Rick Tocchet said. "Those are big goals."

Stepan made sure to tell Kessel and Keller they had made nice passes as they celebrated.

"The three of us really were working hard to make this work, and I think it was a sigh of relief that we were all able to generate some offense and some production," Stepan said. "And that's what's fun about it, and that's what makes it really cool."

Now, the Keller-Stepan-Kessel line gave up a goal in the first period, and the power play didn't get a shot on its only opportunity in the third period.

"Everybody wants to make a play, but you've got to come up with those loose pucks, retrievals," Tocchet said. "That's a huge part of the power play. We've got to get our nose dirty to get those pucks. Once you win those battles, usually things open up."

One goal was especially disappointing considering the Coyotes tied for 28th in goals (209) last season and know they need to improve offensively. As a team, they didn't take care of the puck well enough, either.

"I thought we were OK defensively," Tocchet said. "Obviously we've got to score goals. We had some chances. We had some good possession time. But it was sloppy. Too many giveaways by a couple individuals. I didn't like three or four guys' game."

But it's one game into an 82-game season. Kessel brings, and projects, confidence.

"I think we should expect a lot here," Kessel said. "We've got a good young group with some older veterans here that have played for a while. I think we're going to have a great team this year, and we're going to have a lot of success."

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