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Kessel, Penguins closing in on happy ending

Forward playing best hockey of career in Final; Penguins one win from Stanley Cup

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

SAN JOSE -- Can you win with Phil Kessel?

That never should have been the question, as many times as it was asked when he played for the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs. It should have been: Can you put him in position to take advantage of his talent so he helps you win?

Now that the Pittsburgh Penguins have done that, the question is: Where would they be without him?

Kessel is a top candidate to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, with the Penguins leading the San Jose Sharks 3-1 in the Stanley Cup Final entering Game 5 at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).

He leads the Penguins in goals with 10 and points with 21, taking pressure off captain Sidney Crosby and 2009 Conn Smythe winner Evgeni Malkin, and coach Mike Sullivan praises him for his commitment and complete game.

Video: SJS@PIT, Gm2: Kessel opens scoring after turnover

"I mean, you never imagine something like this," Kessel said while surrounded by reporters in a hallway at SAP Center in San Jose after assisting on two goals in the Penguins' 3-1 victory on Monday. "But to be one game away from winning is something special."

In three seasons with the Bruins and six with the Maple Leafs, Kessel made the playoffs three times and advanced past the first round once. That said more about his teams than it said about him.

Kessel had considerable strengths: speed and scoring. Though he could be streaky within seasons, he was consistent from season to season. From 2008-09 to 2013-14, he scored between 30 and 37 goals in each 82-game season and 20 goals during the 48-game schedule in 2012-13, a 34-goal pace. When he did get a chance to play in the playoffs, he produced: 13 goals and 21 points in 22 games.

But critics focused on what he didn't have: a strong defensive acumen, a chiseled physique or an outgoing personality. He received outsized blame for his teams' failures, even though the Bruins and Maple Leafs didn't exactly have championship-caliber rosters around him.

That second part must have seemed familiar to Crosby and Malkin. When Jim Rutherford took over as general manager in June 2014, he set out to give Crosby and Malkin more help. The biggest move of the many he made was acquiring Kessel from the Maple Leafs in July 2015.

Kessel didn't click with Crosby. He didn't click with Malkin either. But Rutherford replaced coach Mike Johnston with Mike Sullivan, and the Penguins made a conscious effort to play to their strengths: speed and skill. Rutherford made more moves and acquired forward Carl Hagelin from the Anaheim Ducks in January.

Sullivan created a new line in March: Hagelin on the left wing, Nick Bonino in the middle and Kessel on the right wing. Not only did the "HBK Line" click on its own, it created massive matchup problems for the opposition. Whom do you check? Crosby's line? Malkin's? Kessel's?

"When you have Kessel, Crosby and Malkin on three different lines … I mean, all three of those guys make more than anybody on our team," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said. "That's matchup problems for everybody all playoffs."

Crosby and Malkin are producing at lesser rates in these playoffs than their previous career averages. But the Penguins have been winning because Kessel is producing at almost exactly the same rate he did before, and others have been contributing too. Kessel also has been part of Pittsburgh's strong team defense.

"When I watch him play, I say to myself, 'He's committed. He's committed to helping us win,' " Sullivan said.

Sullivan praised Kessel's offensive ability, including his underrated skill as a passer. Then he said this:

"What really impresses me about Phil is just his commitment away from the puck, the play in his own end zone, the wall play that he's participating in. He's strong on the puck. He's playing the game the right way now. For me, it's impressive to watch, because his complete game is, I think, what helps that line be as effective as it's been throughout the course of the playoffs."

Told these were things coaches usually did not say about Kessel, asked what he did to get Kessel to buy in, Sullivan said he had challenged Kessel to improve in certain areas of his game. But he credited Kessel for making the commitment.

A theory: As much as critics said they wanted Kessel to play a complete game before, they judged him on his scoring first and foremost, and he felt he had to score to help his team win because his team wasn't very good. Now there is less pressure individually, he's getting better matchups and he can see a direct line from playing two-way hockey to winning the Stanley Cup. It's a virtuous cycle: the more he does it, the more it works, the more he's recognized for it, the more he does it.

The Penguins have put him in position to succeed, and vice versa.

"We don't get to where we're at if Phil doesn't play the type of hockey that he's played here throughout the course of the playoffs," Sullivan said. "He has been one terrific player for us. … He's a complete player right now. When he plays that way, he's one of the more elite players in the League, in our opinion."

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