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Stanley Cup Final

Penguins' Kessel cherishing first trip to Cup Final

Reserved forward has taken over as offensive leader with Pittsburgh taking aim at title

by Wes Crosby / Correspondent

CRANBERRY, Pa. -- When forward Phil Kessel was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins from the Toronto Maple Leafs on July 1, 2015, he didn't immediately envision making the Stanley Cup Final.

But almost 11 months later, he'll take the ice for Game 1 of the Final against the San Jose Sharks at Consol Energy Center on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).

"You cherish it, because let me tell you, they don't come very often," Kessel said after practice at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex on Saturday. "It's tough to get here. I'm really excited to be here. … You never think this is going to happen. You dream it. But to get a chance to play for the Stanley Cup is something you dreamt of as a kid, and it's right here.

"You realize how tough it is. It is really tough to get here. And we're here, so hopefully we can make the best of it."

Video: PIT@TBL, Gm6: Kessel opens scoring with midair PPG

It certainly has been tough for Kessel to get to this point. He isn't an emotional person publicly, and had trouble describing his emotions after the Penguins' 2-1 defeat of the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final on Thursday.

But his journey, which has spanned 10 NHL seasons with three teams, speaks for itself. Before this season, he had made the Stanley Cup Playoffs three times but never advanced past the second round.

He had four goals and six points in seven games during his only playoff appearance in six seasons with the Maple Leafs. But after 61 points (25 goals, 36 assists) two seasons ago -- the sixth straight time he led the Maple Leafs in points -- he was granted a fresh start with the Penguins.

Bouts of inconsistency defined most of Kessel's 2015-16 regular season.

He had six goals in his first 14 games, then six goals in his next 30. He scored two goals Jan. 21 against the Philadelphia Flyers, but then had six goals in his next 20 games.

Things eventually clicked for Kessel after center Evgeni Malkin sustained an upper-body injury March 11. Kessel and left wing Carl Hagelin, Malkin's former linemates, joined center Nick Bonino and immediately gelled.

In the playoffs Pittsburgh's "HBK" line has been its most productive offensive force, led by Kessel's team-leading nine goals and 18 points.

Video: PIT@TBL, Gm4: Kessel puts the Penguins on the board

"We're happy for everyone that's a part of this team, but especially Phil," Hagelin said. "He's a great guy. He's been through a lot and you can see his excitement when he's at the rink right now. He's excited, just like the rest of us."

Kessel is trending in the right direction with six goals in eight games entering the Stanley Cup Final.

"He's been really good. Just really consistent," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "With his shot, especially with how the playoffs are and everything is so tight, there's not a lot of time and space, and it works out pretty good for him with that release that he has and how dangerous he is. So I think he's been really solid all playoffs long."

It has been a long road for Kessel. He would have been happy to play passenger to Crosby and Malkin as long as it led to the Stanley Cup Final.

Instead, Kessel has manned the driver's seat through three rounds and could help steer the Penguins toward their first championship since 2009.

"I'm thrilled for Phil," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "I think he's a big reason why we're playing today. His contribution to this team, over the last four months or so, has been tremendous. I think he's really enjoying the team. I think he's enjoying this whole process.

"I think, what we're all seeing, is how competitive he is and how badly he wants to win. To see him express that to his teammates is exciting. I think his teammates are enjoying it as well. Phil's a reserved guy. To see him let loose a little bit and show his emotions, I think it's great for his teammates and I think it's great for him."

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