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Phil Kessel of Penguins has knack for raising game in playoffs

Forward led Pittsburgh in points during 2016 Cup run, continues to score big goals, assists in postseason

by Tom Gulitti @tomgulittinhl / Staff Writer

By now, you've heard the story of Phil Kessel. Or at least the story of his former life.

Branded a coach killer with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Kessel wasn't supposed to be the kind of player that helps a team win the Stanley Cup, let alone one who leads the way in the biggest moments.

In his two seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Kessel has rewritten his story and earned a different reputation. Now the term Penguins coach Mike Sullivan often uses to describe Kessel is "difference maker."

He was one again in the Penguins' 6-2 win against the Washington Capitals in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Second Round on Saturday. Kessel had two goals and an assist to help the Penguins take a 2-0 lead in the best-of-7 series, which shifts to PPG Paints Arena for Game 3 on Monday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

"I just think he shows an ability to elevate his game," Sullivan said on Sunday. "I think that's what's necessary at this time of year. It's a hard game out there in the playoffs and you have to fight for every inch and the teams that are still playing are very good teams at both ends of the rink. Phil has shown an ability to elevate his games at key times and he's been a difference maker for us in my tenure here."

Sullivan sensed Kessel was going in Game 2 against the Capitals and double shifted him early, playing him back on the old HBK Line with Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino and also with Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust.

After Patric Hornqvist was injured blocking a shot off his leg, Kessel played a little with Sidney Crosby, including when he scored the goal that put the Penguins up 2-1 and ahead for good with 6:56 remaining in the second period.

"We just kind of started off with a little different lines and adjusted from there," Kessel said.

Regardless of who he plays with, Kessel produces. Through the Penguins' first seven Stanley Cup Playoff games, they are 6-1 and Kessel has 11 points (four goals, seven assists). For his career, he has 54 points (27 goals, 27 assists) in 53 career Stanley Cup Playoff games.

Video: PIT@WSH, Gm2: Kessel wires in his second for PPG

His average of 1.02 points per games in the playoffs ranks third among active players who have played at least 40 playoff games behind Crosby (1.13) and Malkin (1.08 game). His average of 0.51 goals per game ranks second among active players who have played at least 40 games behind Vladimir Tarasenko of the St. Louis Blues (0.55).

What makes Kessel different from most is he produces more in the playoffs than he does during the regular season. Even Crosby (1.31 points per game) and Malkin (1.18) have a slight drop-off from their regular season production in the playoffs.

Kessel, 29, does the opposite, going from solid production during the regular season to an elite level in the playoffs.

With 296 goals and 649 points in 832 games, Kessel averages 0.36 goals per game and 0.78 points per game during the regular season. This season, he had 23 goals and 70 points in 82 regular season games for averages of 0.28 goals per game and 0.85 points per game.

But beginning with a goal and an assist in Game 1 of the Penguins' Eastern Conference First Round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, he's been Big Game Phil again in the playoffs.

"His playoff performance speaks for itself," Sullivan said. "I think the numbers are obvious, but his overall game has been really strong and he's another one of those players that we have on our roster that brings his best game when the games are most important."

The Penguins have had plenty of playoff heroes, both expected and unexpected. The usual suspects include Malkin, who leads the League with 13 points (three goals, 10 assists), and Crosby, who is tied with Kessel for second with 11 points (four goals, seven assists).

In the unexpected category is left wing Jake Guentzel, who leads the League with seven goals and ranks fourth with 10 points.

Video: PIT@WSH, Gm2: Guentzel strikes on odd-man rush

Guentzel has the most goals by a Penguins rookie and is the third player since 1943-44 to score at least seven goals in his first seven playoff games, joining Maurice Richard (10 goals in 1943-44 with the Montreal Canadiens) and Dino Ciccarelli (seven goals in 1980-81 with the Minnesota North Stars).

Kessel has been productive from his first playoff experience scoring three goals and an assist in four games with the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens in the 2008 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. It continued the next season when he had 11 points (six goals, five assists) in 11 playoff games with the Bruins and carried over to his one postseason experience with the Maple Leafs in 2013 when he had six points (four goals, two assists) in a seven-game first-round loss to the Bruins.

However, it usually takes a run to the Stanley Cup for a player to get a reputation for being clutch. Kessel got that last season when he led all Penguins with 22 points (10 goals, 12 assists) in 24 games, but was edged by Crosby for the Conn Smythe Trophy.

Now he's back doing it again this season. It's not a quality Sullivan noticed about Kessel before he coached him, but he's not alone in that.

"You really get to know players when you have them on your team," Sullivan said. "When you see them every day, when you watch them on a daily basis, that's when you really get to learn about your players both as hockey players and also as people. Phil's a guy I've gotten to know a whole lot better the last two seasons and I've watched him elevate and raise his game at the most important time of the year."

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