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Kessel elevating his game for Pens

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Pittsburgh Penguins

When the Pens acquired winger Phil Kessel from Toronto in the summer of 2015, many in the Pittsburgh organization, including general manager Jim Rutherford, believed that it would be good for him to be on a team where he wasn't "the man." 

Kessel, a five-time 30-goal scorer in the NHL, was clearly the best player for Toronto. But with the Pens, Kessel is on a list that holds the names Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.

But make no mistake. Kessel is still "the man."

And Kessel reminded people of his talent with two goals and three points in Game 2 of the Second Round against Washington as the Pens triumphed, 6-2, on Saturday night at Verizon Center to take a 2-0 series lead as the scene shifts to Pittsburgh.

"Phil has shown an ability to elevate his game at key times," head coach Mike Sullivan said. "Phil's a guy that I've gotten to know better the last two seasons. I've watched him raise his game at the most important time of the year. That's obviously a high compliment for an elite player."

Kessel, who led the Pens in postseason scoring during their 2016 Stanley Cup championship run with 22 points in 24 games, now has 11 points in seven games on the current run.

"His playoff performance speaks for itself," Sullivan said. "The numbers are obvious, but his overall game has been really strong."

Kessel's performance in Game 2 Saturday included one of his patented nasty snap shots and a power-play goal that crushed any hopes of a Capitals' comeback.

"Phil is a difference-maker with his offensive instincts and his ability to make plays and shoot the puck," Sullivan said. "That was evident with his game (Saturday)."

Captain Sidney Crosby made a brilliant play, catching a puck behind his body and, in stride, pulling it through his own legs. Crosby drew three Capitals, which left Kessel open streaking down the far end. Crosby dished. Kessel went top shelf to give Pittsburgh a 2-1 lead.

"(Crosby) fought off a couple guys. He's special like that," Kessel said. "He's really strong. He made a great play. You watch it all year. He does it all the time."

On the man-advantage, Kessel had the puck in the circle. He walked to the goal and sniped a dagger through the five-hole of Philipp Grubauer to give the Pens a 4-1 lead in the third period.

Kessel began the game skating on a wing with Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino - the famous HBK Line. But following an injury to forward Patric Hornqvist, the Pens coaching staff began double shifting Kessel. He would eventually fall back onto a line with Evgeni Malkin.

"When we lost Hornqvist early in the game we were forced to make adjustments on the fly," Sullivan said. "We can't say enough for Phil's willingness to embrace any way that we choose to use him. I've had lots of conversations with him over the course of the season on what the coaching staff is thinking and how we'd like to use him. He embraces the challenge. He did it again (Saturday)."

Kessel's efforts weren't lost upon his teammates.

"Phil showed a lot of character tonight, playing a lot of minutes and being a leader on our team," Hagelin said. "He was fun to watch out there."

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