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Kessel searching for answers, goals with Penguins

Forward has scored 21 times, but struggling through 15-game drought

by Wes Crosby / Correspondent

PITTSBURGH -- It's been 15 games since Phil Kessel scored a goal for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The 31-year-old right wing is well aware and trying to end the drought, which is his longest in four seasons with the Penguins, he just isn't sure how.

"I don't know," Kessel said following practice Monday. "It feels like I'm not going to score again this year. It happens, I guess. This year has been an interesting run the last month, I'll say. Hopefully it changes."

Kessel, who last scored Jan. 30 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, hopes his next one comes when Pittsburgh plays the Florida Panthers at PPG Paints Arena on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; ESPN+, ATTSN-PT, FS-F, NHL.TV). 

"At this point, I don't know," Kessel said. "I've had some chances. It just won't go in, right? It is what it is. ... [The second line has] got some good looks, some good chances. Soon, hopefully, they start falling."

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan thinks they will. After taking one shot or fewer in eight of the first 10 games of the drought, including in six straight from Feb. 2-13, Kessel has averaged four shots in his past five games, including tying his season high with seven in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres on March 1.

Video: PIT@VGK: Kessel opens scoring with 20th of the season

"We have noticed it. It is significant," Sullivan said. "If he continues to shoot the puck, he'll score. That's how we feel. Not only is he shooting the puck, but he's getting quality chances. When players of that talent are shooting the puck and are getting quality looks, it's only a matter of time before the puck goes in the net."

Kessel, who has scored at least 30 goals six times in the NHL, including 34 last season, has 65 points (21 goals, 44 assists) in 65 games. He has 10 assists in his past 15 games and three in his past four, in which the Penguins are 2-0-2.

Pittsburgh holds the first wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference, two points ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets, and is one point behind the Carolina Hurricanes for third place in the Metropolitan Division.

The Penguins need Kessel and linemates Evgeni Malkin and Zach Aston-Reese to produce while several key players recover from injuries. Defenseman Brian Dumoulin (concussion) practiced in a non-contact jersey Monday and is day to day, defensemen Kris Letang (upper body) and Olli Maatta (upper body) each skated before practice, and forward Bryan Rust is out long term with a lower-body injury.

When Kessel went seven games without a goal from Nov. 21-Dec. 4, he ended that drought by scoring twice and adding two assists against the New York Islanders on Dec. 6. He had 11 goals and 22 points (nine goals, 13 assists) in his next 23 games before entering his current slump.

Kessel is looking for another cathartic performance.

"One game, hopefully I just get three or something," Kessel said. "Who knows? It happens like that. You need one, and then I go from there."

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