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Kessel finding game, self in Pittsburgh

Shaking off perception of not caring by leading Penguins against Lightning

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

TAMPA -- Before anyone can begin to understand Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Phil Kessel and all of his idiosyncrasies, one first has to realize the perception of him being a misunderstood star athlete is somewhat misguided.

"He flourishes in not having to be the guy," former Toronto Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle told NHL.com.

He's uber-talented and unique, traits a superstar athlete must possess. But instead of wanting the spotlight, craving it, Kessel seems to abhor it.

"He doesn't necessarily want to be in front of the camera or really need that," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said.

But for many years, with the Boston Bruins and in Toronto under Ron Wilson and later Carlyle, Kessel couldn't get away from it. The spotlight fueled a perception of him that wasn't totally true.

He was labeled as lazy, ridiculed for not having a high compete level, and seen as aloof and indifferent.

"Lots of people don't like Phil Kessel for some reason," Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said. "He was only the best player Toronto had for [six] years, year in and year out, and he got the blame for everything, which was very unfair."

Video: Phil Kessel's big-game dominance

Kessel brought some of it on himself, like when he told the Toronto media before the 2014-15 season he had only skated 10 times during the summer, and that he doesn't talk hockey or do anything with hockey in the offseason.

It created the perception he doesn't seem to care about his trade.

But now that Kessel is insulated in Pittsburgh by fellow stars Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, we're starting to see him for what it appears he really is -- a dominant scorer with great speed and a terrific shot, a player adored by his teammates, and a guy who is just shy when it comes to being in the spotlight and dealing with the media.

"The one thing that he doesn't want is he doesn't want management or coaches or the media to see the real Phil," Carlyle said. "He's very guarded in that respect. He wants to hang with his teammates. He's always in the middle of that. He just wants to be a teammate and to let other people decide who the guy is, and that's why he's very comfortable in the role he's cast in now."

But once again, because of his play on the ice, the spotlight has found him again.

Kessel has two goals and four points in the series, and seven goals and 16 points in 14 games this postseason. Pittsburgh leads the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 in the Eastern Conference Final with Game 4 set for Friday at Amalie Arena (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

Kessel is arguably the leading candidate on the Penguins in the Conn Smythe Trophy race.

It starts with his legs. He's fast, even if he doesn't look it. Penguins defenseman Kris Letang said if he didn't already know Kessel, he would never think he was a hockey player by just looking at him.

"But you get in a race with him and you're going to get beat," Letang said.

Kessel's speed is complemented by his linemates, Hagelin and Nick Bonino, both straight-line forwards who force the opposing players to give up the defensive blue line and back up.

"When the line works well together, that speed means the opponent can't hold their offensive blue line because there's a chance they'll flip it behind you and Kessel is going to break because he knows it's going there," Hall of Fame defenseman Brian Leetch said. "So now you have to give Phil two more feet at his defensive blue line, and when he gets a regular breakout pass, now he's got extra room on you to gain speed. It forces you to back up more.

"Now you've got another winger busting down the far side, so it pushes your defense partner back, putting more pressure on the forwards coming back, because they can't catch up to those two guys."

Lightning defenseman Matt Carle said the key is getting in Kessel's face early so he can't build up any speed. The Lightning haven't done that yet, so they've been on their heels.

Carle also said Tampa Bay's defensemen have to keep Kessel's shot to the outside, but that's almost impossible based on how he shoots the puck.

"I think his shot is deceptive," Carle said.

It is because Kessel doesn't pause to shoot; he snaps the puck off of his stick in stride. Penguins goalie Jeff Zatkoff said the best word to describe Kessel's shot is "heavy," but it's dangerous because he has a quick release while shooting in stride.

"He shoots the puck so effortless," Zatkoff said. "Everyone knows he has a hard shot, but he's coming down the wing and it looks like he's just flinging it on the net, but it just comes so heavy and so quick. If he hits a spot, it's tough to save. You don't have time to readjust."

Former NHL goalie Martin Biron noted how Kessel fools a goalie with a quick stick flick before he shoots. He said Brendan Shanahan used to do the same thing.

"Sometimes you know where they want to shoot," Biron said, "and they do something right before they shoot, so you move just to have the shot go where you anticipated it would go in the first place, and it beats you."

Leetch said Kessel always had elite speed and a great shot. He remembers watching him play as a teenager in the World Junior Championship and noticing both, thinking they were already "NHL level and plus."

But the perception of Kessel not caring eventually began to cloud the value of those assets. It's a reason why people in Boston felt he had to go and why people in Toronto felt he was a deterrent to the rebuilding process.

He's proving now that perception was off base.

"Phil is a guy that's probably misunderstood," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "We've really grown to appreciate what he brings to our team and helping us win.

"The biggest thing that I've grown to appreciate about Phil is how competitive he is, especially when the stakes are high."

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