When he meets with the media, Phil Kessel is usually quiet and reserved. As captain Sidney Crosby, no stranger to media attention, has said of his teammate, Kessel just doesn’t necessarily want or need to be in front of the camera, which is completely understandable.
But after the Pens’ 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final on Thursday that earned them a trip to the Stanley Cup Final, this time Kessel just couldn’t hide his emotions when talking with reporters in the locker room – and it was fantastic.
“This game was one of the biggest of my career, if not the biggest. I don’t even know what to say, I’m so happy,” said Kessel, who will be competing for a championship for the first time at 28 years old and in his 10th NHL season. “This is a huge moment in my career and in my life and I don’t even know what to say, I’m so excited.”
During the middle of a response to a question about Crosby touching the Prince of Wales Trophy, at one point Kessel just started laughing because he was so excited and happy.
“Whatever we have to do. Whatever works. I’m so thrilled right now I don’t even know what to say,” he said. “This is a huge moment in my career and I have nothing but good things to say about everyone here.”
When asked about Kessel’s post-game reaction on Saturday, this time it was Mike Sullivan who couldn’t stop smiling as he gave his answer.
“I’m thrilled for Phil,” he said. “I think he’s a big reason why we’re playing today. His contribution to this team over the last four months or so has been tremendous. I think he’s really enjoying the team. I think he’s enjoying this whole process. And I think what we’re all seeing is how competitive he is and how badly he wants to win.
“To see him express that to his teammates, for me, is exciting. I think his teammates are enjoying it as well. Phil’s a reserved guy and I think to see him let loose a little bit and show his emotions, I think it’s great for his teammates and I think it’s great for him.”
Winger Carl Hagelin, part of Pittsburgh’s HBK Line along with Kessel and Nick Bonino, agreed with his coach.
"We're happy for everyone that's a part of this team, but especially Phil," Hagelin said. "He's a great guy. He's been through a lot and you can see his excitement when he's at the rink right now. He's excited, just like the rest of us."
A couple of days later, Kessel’s emotions were more in check following the team’s Saturday practice at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex as they prepare to host the San Jose Sharks on Monday for Game 1. But that doesn’t mean he’s any less thrilled about the opportunity in front of him, something he’s waited quite a while for.
Before coming to Pittsburgh this summer via trade after six seasons with Toronto, Kessel had made the playoffs three times in his 10-year career but never advanced past the second round. His last postseason trip was back in 2013 with Toronto, where they lost to Boston in heartbreaking fashion in Game 7 of the First Round.
“It’s been a long time,” he said. “You cherish it because let me tell you, they don’t come very often. It’s tough to get here. I’m really excited to be here.
“You never think it’s going to happen,” he continued. “You dream it. Getting a chance to play for the Stanley Cup is something you dreamt as a kid, and now we’re right here. We just have to play well and hopefully things go well.”
If Kessel continues to play the way he has, they’ll certainly have a heck of a chance.
Right now, Kessel is the team’s leading scorer these playoffs with nine goals and 18 points in 18 games. He’s been a force, using his speed to make plays up and down the ice and his game-changing shot to put the puck in the back of the net at key times.
“He’s been really good. Just really consistent,” Crosby said. “With his shot, especially with the way the playoffs are, everything’s so tight and there’s not a lot of time and space. It works out pretty good for him with the release that he has and how dangerous it is. I think he’s been really solid all playoffs.”
PRACTICE NOTES: Forwards Nick Bonino and Chris Kunitz were the only expected players absent from practice, and Sullivan said afterward that they were given maintenance days.