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Kessel eager to bounce back for Coyotes in Cup Qualifier

Forward had 38 points in first season with Arizona, feels 'better than I did all year'

by Brian Compton @BComptonNHL / Deputy Managing Editor

Phil Kessel said he is eager to rebound from his least productive season since 2015-16 when the Arizona Coyotes play the Nashville Predators in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers.

"Obviously, I had a tough year," the forward said after skating with teammates at Gila River Arena on Tuesday. "I had, I think it's probably my most injuries I've had is this year, but that's no excuse. It's one of those years. Obviously, I'm going to look to never have that again. I've never had a year like that, so I'm looking to bounce back. This is a good time to get it started again."

The 32-year-old is a six-time 30-goal scorer but struggled in his first season with the Coyotes; he scored 38 points (14 goals, 24 assists) in 70 games before the NHL season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus. Kessel scored 82 points (27 goals, 55 assists) for the Pittsburgh Penguins last season.

His 38 points were his fewest since he scored 59 points (26 goals, 33 assists) in 82 games for the Penguins in 2015-16, when he scored 22 points (10 goals, 12 assists) in 24 Stanley Cup Playoff games to help them win the Cup.

"I think [playoff experience] matters," Kessel said. "I think guys that have been there in those spots, they know what to expect and what to do. I think to be honest, it's a different level of hockey. It's a faster, more crisp game. It's a fun time of year."

Kessel, who was traded to the Coyotes on June 29, 2019, did not miss a game for Arizona during the regular season and said he feels fresh heading into training camp. Camps are scheduled to open July 10 as part of Phase 3 of the NHL Return to Play Plan, provided that medical and safety conditions allow, and the NHL and NHL Players' Association have reached an agreement on resuming play. The length of training camp and the start date for resumption of play (Phase 4), and the two hub cities -- one for the 12 participating Eastern Conference teams, and one for the 12 Western Conference teams -- will be determined.

"I feel good right now," said Kessel, who has 77 points (33 goals, 44 assists) in 87 playoff games. "I feel better than I did all year, so I'm excited. My body feels good, I feel rested. I'm going to be ready to go."

The Coyotes were 33-29-8 (.529 points percentage) enter the qualifiers as the No. 11 seed in the West. They will play the No. 6 seed, the Predators (35-26-8, .565), in one of eight best-of-5 series, with the winner advancing to the playoffs and the loser having a chance at the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft in the Second Phase of the NHL Draft Lottery.

Arizona finished with its highest points percentage in six seasons (.543 in 2013-14) and hopes to reach the playoffs for the first time in eight.

Kessel, who self-quarantined at his home in Florida and returned to Arizona three weeks ago, said he's hopeful the time away could prove to be beneficial.

"Yeah, it could be. I think it could be a real positive for us," he said. "I think everyone's excited, and we're going to be ready. We've got a good, young core, and all the guys are looking forward to this.

"We're going to have to get into it right away. It's going to be a different playoff than ever before, obviously. I think without fans and everything, it's going to be strange, but I think guys know what they're playing for. We all want a chance to win. … I think it's going to be interesting. We have the camp to kind of get ready and try to get into it. I don't know how many exhibition or preseason games we're going to have, but I think the team that gets into it the fastest and can get into that shape and play well, I think they've got a big advantage."

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