Before the Penguins’ 5-2 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday night, Phil Kessel had only donned the black and gold with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin at his center.
But with Crosby missing the game due to a lower-body injury and head coach Mike Sullivan looking to balance the lineup, Kessel found Nick Bonino taking the faceoffs.
“Doesn’t make a difference who you play with,” Kessel said. “You have to do whatever you can to help the team win.”
He did just that, scoring twice to break an eight-game goalless drought dating back to his last two-goal performance on Dec. 1 at San Jose.
“I thought he was a threat,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “He was a threat most shifts when he was on the ice. When he’s skating like that, Phil is at his best.”
Bonino and Kessel found chemistry early in the second period. Bonino recovered a rebound in front of Pens rookie-goaltender Matt Murray and sent the puck to Scott Wilson, who found Kessel off to the races behind the Columbus defense.
Wilson’s perfect pass to Kessel would become his first NHL point. The little juke by Kessel that followed fooled Blue Jackets goaltender Joonas Korpisalo and gave him his tenth goal of the season, putting the Pens ahead 2-1.
“It felt good,” Kessel said. “I haven’t scored in awhile. It’s nice to get one and it’s a nice win heading into the break.”
With four minutes left in the second, Bonino and Kessel teamed up for another highlight-reel play.
“Olli (Maatta) put a pretty good bouncing pass up to me,” Bonino said. “Just one of those bounces that haven’t been going my way. Tonight it did.”
With only Blue Jackets defenseman Dalton Prout between them, Bonino dished a perfect saucer pass to Kessel. The sniper went down on one knee to fire a one-timer into an open cage for his second goal of the night, which gave the Pens a 3-1 lead and stood as the game-winner.
“I knew (Kessel) was there,” Bonino said with a laugh. “That’s going to him every single time. I just hoped it didn’t bounce over his stick or anything. He’s a scorer and he put it in.”
“I thought we played pretty well as a line tonight,” Kessel said. “We had some chances and we got a couple of goals. It’s nice when you get that.”