Penguins notebook: Phil Kessel shines in preseason home finale
Training camp means different things to different players. Some veterans are just knocking off the rust while some prospects are fighting desperately to make the team.
They all have roughly the same goal, though.
“We’re just trying to get ready for October,” winger Phil Kessel said.
And how, exactly, does Kessel get ready for October?
By snapping a couple of world-class shots past an unsuspecting goaltender, apparently.
Kessel scored a twice in the final three minutes of the first period, leading the Penguins to a 5-1 exhibition victory over the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday night at PPG Paints Arena.
The Penguins are 2-2-1 in the preseason, which closes Friday night in Columbus.
After he was the subject of quite a few headlines in the offseason, Kessel has had an uneventful training camp. He has skated in the same spot — second-line right wing and left half-wall on the first power play — and with the same center — Evgeni Malkin — from the drop of the first puck.
On Wednesday night, Kessel looked to be in midseason form.
On his first goal, Kessel stripped defenseman Taylor Fedun of the puck at the defensive blue line, skated up the right wing and rifled a shot past goalie Linus Ullmark.
Later, with six seconds left in the period, Kessel pulled up at the right faceoff dot and sent a rocket over Ullmark’s left shoulder that went in and out of the net so fast that nobody seemed to notice it was a goal until after a video review.
“He’s an elite player, and when he turns it up in certain situations, he has the ability to change the outcome,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “I thought in the first half of the game in particular, I thought Phil was really good and Geno’s line was really good. Maybe that’s Phil’s way of getting ready for Game 1.”
The Penguins broke the game open with a pair of goals in a 13-second span of the second period. Derick Brassard finished off a cross-crease Jake Guentzel pass on the power play before Bryan Rust drove to the net and Matt Cullen cleaned up the rebound. Kris Letang also scored.
In general, it was the kind of effort coach Mike Sullivan was looking for when he asked his players to ratchet up their competitiveness with the season opener eight days away.
“We did talk a lot about that tonight, that we gotta ramp it up here,” Cullen said. “The training camp side of things is pretty much behind us. We’re now into what we feel like is regular-season mode and we need to ramp it up. I thought tonight was a good step forward.”
After stopping 30 of 33 shots in his first preseason action in a 7-3 win over Columbus on Sunday, goalie Matt Murray turned back 20 of 21 shots Wednesday.
He said he’ll probably play in the preseason finale Friday night, but even if he doesn’t, he’s feeling good about the direction of his game.
“Trying to feel a little bit sharper each and every time I’m on the ice, and that’s the way it’s been going,” Murray said.
The Penguins played with a lineup resembling the one they’ll use in the Oct. 4 opener against Washington, with one notable exception. Defenseman Justin Schultz did not play due to what Sullivan described as a nagging upper-body injury. Juuso Riikola took his place.
“It’ll be a day-to-day thing,” Sullivan said. “I don’t envision it being anything serious.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.