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Phil Kessel of Penguins enjoys playoff spotlight

Pittsburgh forward, used to sparkling in postseason, aims to make Blue Jackets squint

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

PITTSBURGH -- Phil Kessel not only makes it look so easy, he makes it sound so easy too.

"I've always said I just try to make the right play," said Kessel, the Pittsburgh Penguins right wing with the quick release and gifted shot. "If the shot is there, the shot is there, and if the pass is there, the pass is there.

"Things happen really quick out there, and you just try to make the right plays."

Kessel has been making the right plays often for the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

He has 24 points (11 goals, 13 assists) in 26 playoff games with Pittsburgh. He won the Stanley Cup last season, with one goal and three assists in the Stanley Cup Final against the San Jose Sharks and four goals in the Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Kessel, 29, started off this postseason by scoring on a top-shelf wrist shot and getting an assist on a kick pass in transition during a 3-1 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round on Wednesday.

Video: CBJ@PIT, Gm1: Kessel picks the corner for PPG

He was held off the score sheet in Pittsburgh's 4-1 win in Game 2 on Friday. Game 3 is at Nationwide Arena on Sunday (6 p.m. ET; CNBC, SN360, TVA Sports 2, ROOT, FS-O).

"Phil has had an ability to elevate his game and be at his best when the stakes are high," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "He's continuing in that vein. He's an elite player, and when he plays the game a certain way, he has the ability to change outcomes."

Notice Sullivan's choice of words?

"When he plays the game a certain way."

Yes, it's fair to read into them, especially when the subject he's talking about is Kessel, who has been criticized in the past as being a coach's nightmare.

Ron Wilson, his former coach with the Toronto Maple Leafs, once told TSN Radio, "You can't rely on Phil." The Hockey News once ran a cover with Kessel's mug shot, above his Maple Leafs sweater, and an all-caps headline that read, "IS THIS THE FACE OF A COACH KILLER?" The words "COACH KILLER" were big, blue and bold.

"I think a lot of that is overblown," Sullivan said. "Phil and I have a great relationship."

Sullivan then explained what he means by "plays the game a certain way."

Video: CBJ@PIT, Gm1: Kessel, Fleury on opening round win

"I think when he's using his speed both with and without the puck," Sullivan said, "when he's anticipating and getting to areas of the rink that give him an opportunity to act on his skillsets, and when he gets to the right areas he gets the puck and he has the puck, and that gives him the ability to make plays or shoot the puck.

"Phil's game is really predicated upon him skating and being active with his anticipation skills and getting to areas where he demands the puck. On the nights I think when Phil is at his very best, he has the puck a fair amount."

On the nights when Kessel isn't at his best, Sullivan tells him why.

"There are nights when he'll say to me, 'Geez, I just didn't get the puck tonight,'" Sullivan said, "and we always turn it around on him and place the burden of responsibility on him because he's so talented and he is an elite player."

Sometimes discussions with Kessel can turn into arguments, Sullivan said, but that's productive, too. It seems to fuel their relationship.

"He's an honest guy, a straightforward guy," Sullivan said. "I have so much respect for his honesty. I'm not going to say that we haven't had our heated conversations over the time I've been here. We have. Part of my responsibility as the coach is to try to help players grow and develop their respective games. … Sometimes in those conversations you're going to tell players what they don't want to hear. Phil is no different in that regard, but he's always very respectful and I believe we have that mutual respect within our relationship. My experience of coaching Phil has been nothing but positive."

His teammates' experience with him has been positive too.

Center Evgeni Malkin happily plays pranks with Kessel. Center Sidney Crosby laughs with Kessel and admires his skill, the ability to be a difference-maker on every shift with every shot.

"He's a guy you look up to," rookie center Jake Guentzel said.

Guentzel has been looking up to Kessel since he was 11 and the stickboy for the University of Minnesota men's ice hockey team in 2005-06 season. Kessel scored 51 points (18 goals, 43 assists) for the Golden Gophers that season.

Mike Guentzel, Jake's father, was an assistant coach. He still is at Minnesota.

"Oh, he was so awesome," Guentzel said of Kessel the Gopher.

When Guentzel got to Pittsburgh in November, he sought out Kessel.

"He remembered my name so when I came in he made it a little easier for me to adjust," Guentzel said.

Sullivan has had to adjust to Kessel over time, but has learned that much like Kessel's decision-making with the puck, when to shoot and when to pass, it's only difficult if you make it difficult.

"He's an elite player and we believe as a coaching staff that we have to allow those guys some latitude," Sullivan said. "They're going to go off the grid sometimes, but that's what separates them from others."

There's no one quite like Kessel. Sullivan and the Penguins like it that way.

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