The Penguins found themselves down by a goal just over halfway through the first period of Saturday’s 6-3 Game 5, series-clinching victory over the New York Rangers at CONSOL Energy Center. The Pens also found themselves on their first power play of the afternoon.
But most importantly, Phil Kessel found himself with nothing but open ice ahead.
With 8:21 left in the first period, Kessel came flying through the neutral zone to receive a Sidney Crosby pass before crossing the blue line.
“It’s a good feeling,” Kessel said. “This is the best time of year.”
With his patented stick flex and wicked release, the 28-year-old winger hit the far-side corner above the blocker of the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist. The goaltender couldn’t believe it.
“We just tried to get as many pucks at the net as we could,” Kessel said. “He’s a world-class goalie and we were fortunate to get a lot of good chances on him.”
Kessel continued to add to his reputation as a playoff performer, as it was a huge goal that tied the game at 2-2. It was his third of the playoffs as well as the Pens’ eighth power-play goal of the series, good enough for the league-best with a 38-percent success rate.
“He can change the game with one shot,” Crosby said. “He’s really dangerous when you’re talking about the playoffs.”
Kessel’s snipe wasn’t his only Game 5 highlight. The playoff performer threaded the needle to set up Carl Hagelin on the doorstep to give the Pens their first goal of the game and Hagelin’s first against his former team.
“He’s a heck of a passer,” Patric Hornqvist said of Kessel. “He’s a way better passer than people think.”
Head coach Mike Sullivan praised Kessel, who was acquired from Toronto during the offseason, for his stellar play down the stretch and into the postseason.
“I don’t think he gets enough credit for the adjustment process that he went through when he got here,” Sullivan said. “When you come to a team that has some of the elite stature that this group has, there’s a feeling-out process there regardless of the player that you are when you join a team like our team. I don’t think Phil was any different. There was an adjustment process there he needed to go through to come to terms with where does he fit in the mix. We’ve tried to help define that, but certainly he deserves all the credit for what he’s been able to accomplish here over the last two months.
“You can see the impact he has on our team. He’s one of those guys that can be a difference-maker. He has been that for us throughout the course of the last eight weeks of our season and into our playoff series. He’s an important guy for our team.”