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Kessel's return to Pittsburgh with Coyotes will be fun, Penguins say

Forward won Stanley Cup twice in four seasons before being traded to Arizona

by Wes Crosby / NHL.com Independent Correspondent

PITTSBURGH -- Phil Kessel is missed by the Pittsburgh Penguins. 

Not just the 303 points (110 goals, 193 assists) the 32-year-old forward had in four seasons with Pittsburgh from 2015-19. The Penguins say they miss Kessel -- the guy.

"Getting to know him, he's a really laid-back guy," defenseman Justin Schultz said. "Nice guy. Funny."

They'll get a chance to reconnect when Kessel, who was traded to Arizona Coyotes in the offseason, returns to Pittsburgh for the first time to play the Penguins at PPG Paints Arena on Friday (7 p.m. ET; ESPN+, ATTSN-PT, FS-A, FS-A PLUS, NHL.TV).

"It's definitely going to be fun. It's going to be fun to see him again," Penguins forward Bryan Rust said. "But it's definitely going to be weird to have him not be in the black and gold."

Kessel had 82 points (27 goals, 55 assists) with the Penguins last season before being traded to the Coyotes on June 29 for forward Alex Galchenyuk and defenseman prospect Pierre-Oliver Joseph.

After Pittsburgh acquired Kessel a trade from the Toronto Maple Leafs on July 1, 2015, he won the Stanley Cup in each of his first two seasons with the Penguins. 

Kessel had 22 points (10 goals, 12 assists) in 24 games during the 2016 Stanley Cup run, when he played right wing on the "HBK Line" with left wing Carl Hagelin and center Nick Bonino. He followed that with 23 points (eight goals, 15 assists) in 25 games during the 2017 championship run.

"He's a great player," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "He's very opportunistic. I think he has an ability to get behind defense corps. He has an ability to anticipate and jump on the offense when the puck's up for grabs. He's one of those players that you have to be aware when he's on the ice."

Kessel had six goals in his final 32 regular-season games with Pittsburgh, which included a 16-game drought from Feb. 1-March 5. He had one goal and one assist in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the New York Islanders but was held without a point in the final three games of a four-game sweep.

Kessel has 17 points (six goals, 11 assists) in 30 games after scoring twice in a 3-1 win against the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday. Five of his six goals have come on the power play.

Video: ARI@LAK: Kessel scores PPG in 1st period

"Played for a while with him here," Schultz said. "He was a big part of our two championships. It'll be a tough matchup. He's still a great player in this league. He can score at any time out there. It'll be a fun matchup."

Kessel might have a difficult time recognizing Pittsburgh's lineup. Centers Sidney Crosby and Nick Bjugstad are out, each recovering from core muscle surgery. Forward Patric Hornqvist is out longer-term after sustaining a lower-body injury in practice on Monday.

Defenseman Brian Dumoulin is expected to be out at least eight weeks after having ankle surgery Sunday, and defenseman Jack Johnson could miss a second straight game with an illness.

Schultz and Rust will be game-time decisions Friday. Schultz took contact Thursday for the first time since sustaining a lower-body injury in practice Nov. 20; Rust has missed three games after sustaining a lower-body injury during a morning skate Nov. 29.

The Penguins are on a nine-game home point streak (7-0-2) despite the injuries.

Kessel did not miss a game in his four seasons with the Penguins. He has played 804 straight NHL games since Oct. 31, 2009, when he was sidelined by a shoulder injury while with the Maple Leafs.

That consistency and Kessel's demeanor were appreciated, Sullivan said.

"Phil was a great teammate when he was here," Sullivan said. "His teammates really like him. I think he has a way, with his sense of humor, to lighten the atmosphere sometimes when the stakes are really high. Phil brought that to our team. He was a really good player. 

"He was such a big part of the Stanley Cup runs that we had here and the success that this team has had in the last handful of years. I know he was a very popular guy with his teammates."

Schultz confirmed that.

"He's fun to have in the locker room," Schultz said. "We sure miss him."

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