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Kessel feels 'special' after Cup win with Penguins

Cast off by Bruins, Maple Leafs, veteran forward celebrates championship in first season with Pittsburgh

by Amalie Benjamin @amaliebenjamin / Staff Writer

SAN JOSE -- One hour and six minutes after the final seconds ticked off the clock, after the buzzer had sounded and the equipment had been thrown into the air, three men stood arm-in-arm by the boards. Behind them were the yellow-clad Pittsburgh Penguins fans chanting the moniker by which they had suddenly risen to fame as a trio: "HBK! HBK! HBK!"

They posed for photos, surrounded by family. They smiled. And then they embraced, all three in a tight circle of joy.

The redemption was complete for Phil Kessel. He had shed the criticism and doubt, the questions and the failures, the boos in multiple cities. He had shrugged off the trades out of Boston and out of Toronto, the slights and the accusations. He had found his place, finally. He was the "K" in "HBK," alongside Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino, and now he was a Stanley Cup champion.

"Yeah," he said, emotion creeping in after the Penguins' 3-1 victory against the San Jose Sharks in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. "It's been a journey."

And, sometimes, one year can change everything.

Video: PIT@SJS, Gm6: Kessel discusses HBK line, Cup win

"I couldn't be happier for him," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "Phil's a misunderstood guy. He's a guy that really doesn't love the limelight. He's a reserved guy. Just wants to go to the rink, hang out with his teammates. He's a tremendous hockey player.

"We pushed him like we did all of our players to try to get him to grow his game in areas where we thought he could improve in helping our team win. And Phil responded. He responded the right way. He gets a lot of criticism. Sometimes I think he's not deserving (of it).

"He's a tremendous player. He had an unbelievable postseason for us. And we don't win a Stanley Cup if he's not part of this group."

So, yes, the narrative is different now. The story has changed. And yet, as Kessel said, "I've never changed my game. Obviously, I'm the same guy that I've always been. I just go out there and I try my best. Obviously, this year worked out pretty well."

He finished the Stanley Cup Playoffs with the fourth-most points of anyone, the only one of the top five who didn't play for the Sharks. Kessel, a leading candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy that went to Sidney Crosby, scored 10 goals and had 12 assists in 24 postseason games, as the creation and dominance of his line allowed the Penguins to create matchup nightmares for all of their opponents.

"We all played for each other," Kessel said of his line, which combined for 20 goals and 36 assists. "We knew where each other was going to be. We just found a way."

And in that, in that performance and his performance this season with his third team in a decade in the NHL, Kessel has found the admiration and respect that it was not always assured he would find.

It started with the July 1 trade that brought him to Pittsburgh, with the Toronto Maple Leafs ridding themselves of a player who hadn't quite fit with the team or the city. The Maple Leafs shipped off a player who had scored 25 goals last season and 37 the season before.

Video: PIT@SJS, Gm6: Hornqvist's empty-netter seals the win

The Maple Leafs had given up on Kessel. They were rebuilding and they were not going to rebuild with him. It simply hadn't worked, with too much focus and too much pressure surrounding a player who did not seem to thrive under those conditions.

Pittsburgh was more comfortable. Pittsburgh, it seemed, was right.

Kessel continued to produce, not at his highest rates, but at rates that worked for the Penguins; he had 26 goals and 33 assists in the regular season before becoming a machine in the playoffs. His acquisition was lauded Sunday by Penguins owner Mario Lemieux, in words about his general manager, Jim Rutherford.

As Lemieux said, "[Rutherford] deserves a lot of the credit, starting with the Phil Kessel trade. That was a big piece. You saw how he played in the playoffs, just an amazing competitor."

This was something Kessel had only dreamed of last summer, something he could not have predicted, something he could barely describe. It was, he said, an "unbelievable feeling." He was handed the Cup by defenseman Kris Letang, pumping it up and down, and then skating with it and letting out some yelps while his teammates celebrated his triumph.

"I mean, how can you ask for anything better than this?" Kessel said. "Winning the Cup is what you dream of and what you play for."

Video: PIT@SJS, Gm6: Hornqvist talks about Pens winning Cup

And it was something that was on the agenda nearly as soon as the trade was completed. On that same day, on July 1, Kessel received a call from his new captain. Sidney Crosby reached out to him, extending a hand to a new teammate and making a promise.

As Kessel recalled it Sunday, Crosby said they were excited to have him -- "'We're going to try and win a Cup.' -- And we got it done."

So, he was asked, is there redemption for you? Has this changed everything?

"I'm a Stanley Cup winner now," Kessel said. "It's pretty special."

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