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Kessel raises game with inspiring effort

by Bryanna McDermott / Pittsburgh Penguins

Head coach Mike Sullivan expressed throughout the regular season that he wants winger Phil Kessel to have more of a shoot-first mentality; the same was true on Wednesday night as the Pens entered Game 1 of the First Round against the Columbus Blue Jackets at PPG Paints Arena.

Ask and you shall receive. 

Kessel sniped a power-play goal, added an assist and posted a game-leading seven shots on goal as the Pens defeated the Blue Jackets 3-1.

"He has one of the best wrist shots in the game when he shoots like that," Sullivan said after the victory. "He's accurate, he has a deceptive release, he has a quick release. The velocity on it is as hard a shot as a wrist shot as there is in the league. I think he's certainly conscious of putting pucks on the net and I think he had a great game."

Kessel's goal came 3:45 into the second period. Defenseman Justin Schultz collected the puck and made a crisp pass to Evgeni Malkin at the blue line, who sent the puck to a waiting Kessel at the left circle. Kessel fell to one knee and buried a shot into the top right corner to make the game 2-0.

"We kind of worked at 'Geno' and (Sidney Crosby's) side," Kessel said. "Geno one-hand clocked it up the side to 'Schultzy' and 'Schultzy' found me, and I was kind of was looking to see what I had and I'm fortunate to just get far side."  

As great as the goal was, the assist was just as impressive.

Schultz once again began the play, winning a battle at the boards in the Pens' end to get the puck up to Malkin. He got it over to Kessel, who used his right skate to pass to Bryan Rust in the high slot. He slapped it past Sergei Bobrovsky for the first goal of the night.

"It was kind of at my feet and I saw 'Rusty' coming in, so I just tried to get it into that area for him," Kessel said. "I just think it was kind of lucky."

The jump in Kessel's step may be due to a familiar face on the ice in Malkin, who returned from injury to start Game 1.

"Obviously 'Geno' is one of the best players in the world," Kessel said. "When he's in the lineup, we're a better team."

"He's special," Kessel continued. "You know what he does. He's a top-tier player."

Malkin also was excited to get back on the ice with Kessel.

"It's fun," Malkin laughed when asked how he enjoyed playing alongside Kessel. "He had a couple good chances and he scored on one. He's an amazing player and he's a playoff guy. He wants to win every game, he wants to score every game and he plays hard every game."

The playoffs simply bring out the best in Kessel.

During the 2016 playoff run, Kessel scored 10 goals and 22 points in 24 games played and he's continuing the push in 2017.

"I am going to try to do the same thing again this year and hopefully it works out," Kessel said at practice on Tuesday. "It's a lot of fun. Each time the playoffs come around you have to raise your game."

Consider Kessel's game raised.

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