Evgeni Malkin, never shy or eager to second-guess when it comes to declarations about future events, on Wednesday offered a new expectation for Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final: Phil Kessel will score.
“I mean, it’s his time to score,” Malkin said. “We know he like to play in tough situation. … He not score long time, but now it’s time. Last game (on Monday), I think he show best game in series. I see in his eyes, he play so hard. I feel that (Thursday), he show great game.”
Kessel indeed put together an admirable performance in Game 4, as he recorded a team-high eight shot attempts, including two that found their way to goalie Pekka Rinne. His production came during a night in which, as coach Mike Sullivan noted, the Penguins edged the Predators in scoring chances for the first time in the series. But Kessel’s goal drought extended to a sixth straight game, and the Penguins fell 4-1.
Malkin and Sullivan’s message to the masses: Keep faith in Phil, and he shall deliver. After all, Kessel is central to the approach preached by Sullivan in the series — use high-end finishing skills to capitalize on the instances where Nashville’s deep, talented defense leaves itself open to rush opportunities.
“He has that ability to create separation and can be a threat off the rush or take defensemen wide,” Sullivan said following Wednesday’s practice in Cranberry.
“I think the one area where our team can improve here is just our transition game. That’s a dangerous element of our game that has been prevalent throughout of course of this season. … I think that gives our team a competitive advantage.”
When Kessel last scored, in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final, the Penguins found themselves in the midst of a frustrating puzzle presented by Ottawa, which clogged up the neutral zone with a 1-3-1 trap and crowded its net front with shot-blockers and crease-clearers.
The dynamics changed drastically against Nashville. Speed and talent depth, still in the injury-plagued Penguins’ favor against the Senators, became draws if not deficits in comparison to the Predators. Sullivan, in his effort to spark more secondary scoring and find exploitable matchups, moved around several of his better shooters, including Kessel, who started Game 4 on a line with Matt Cullen and Chris Kunitz after serving as Malkin’s winger for most of the playoffs.
Kessel ended up back with Malkin during drills Wednesday. Rookie winger Jake Guentzel, the postseason goals leader, skated with Sidney Crosby and Conor Sheary to form a trio that overwhelmed several opponents during the regular season but fell flat early in the playoffs.
Minutes after the Game 4 loss, Sullivan sounded encouraged by what he witnessed out of Kessel. In particular, the shoot-first mentality stood out, he said. A day later, the coach mentioned the undeniable chemistry between the sharp-shooting right winger and Malkin, as well as the lack of synergy during brief stints when Kessel skated with Crosby. He also emphasized the importance of spreading scoring talent throughout the lineup, something he did to great effect when Kessel thrived with Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin in the 2016 Stanley Cup run.
Bonino and Hagelin are hampered by injuries and nowhere close to generating offense as frequently as they did a year ago.
Kessel, ever the iron man in terms of health and availability, also remains steady in point production. His 20 points in 23 playoff games this season is close to his 22 in 24 of a season ago, and his 70 points in the 2016-17 regular season exceeded his 59 in 2015-16.
Only his shooting habits strayed into unfamiliar territory in recent months, but with help from the coaching staff, Kessel tried to recommit to the idea of serving as a reliable triggerman. In Game 4, he fired away, only to see his trademark delivery defy him a bit.
“I just play my game, go out there and try to help the team win any way I can,” Kessel said. “I missed the net a couple times where I probably should’ve hit the net. It happens. … It’s getting closer. I always get a chance or two. Just got to make them count.”