PITTSBURGH — Evgeni Malkin corralled the puck near his own goal-line and saw Phil Kessel sprinting out of the zone. He flipped a perfect pass to centre ice, sending Kessel on a breakaway that resulted in a goal.
Carl Hagelin repeated a similar sequence with Kessel later in the second period that ended the same way.
The two goals completed a natural hat trick for Kessel and the Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Vegas Golden Knights 4-2 on Thursday night.
“There’s a fine line between anticipation and cheating and I think Phil has a knack for seeing those windows of opportunity,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “He has explosive speed so he can create separation when he needs to. He has another gear and you could see that on those breakaways.”
Vegas scored the first goal of the game, and Kessel had the next three. It was Kessel’s sixth career hat trick and first in four seasons with Pittsburgh. His last hat trick came Feb. 1, 2014, as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, in a 6-3 win against Ottawa.
“It’s been awhile,” said Kessel, who switched sticks before his hat trick. “It felt good. I had some good passes and I was able to finish.”
Jake Guentzel scored his third goal and Malkin had three assists for the Penguins, who allowed 11 goals in their first two games.
“I could see our guys making more of a concerted effort to defend,” Sullivan said. “I think our team is capable of getting to another level. I don’t think we had our swagger like we’re capable of, but from an effort standpoint, you can see they were trying to do the right things.”
Casey DeSmith stopped 35 shots in his first regular-season start for Pittsburgh. Starter Matt Murray missed Thursday’s game and is day-to-day with a concussion suffered Monday during practice. Murray participated in, and faced shots during, Thursday’s optional morning skate.
Reilly Smith scored his second of the season for Vegas and 100th career goal. Tomas Nosek also scored for Vegas, which lost its third straight and has opened the season with four losses in five games. The defending Western Conference champions lost their fourth game on Nov. 2 last season.
Malcolm Subban made 18 saves for Vegas. Marc-Andre Fleury, who spent 13 seasons and won three Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh, served as the backup after allowing four goals on 28 shots during a loss Wednesday at Washington. Fans chanted for Fleury — selected in 2017 by Vegas in the expansion draft — after Subban allowed three goals on seven shots in the second period.
“We just have to stay positive,” Subban said. “We’ve been generating a lot of shots on net. Eventually, we’re going to start getting some bounces.”
Nosek opened the scoring, taking a pass from Jonathan Marchessault along the boards and slipping a backhander behind DeSmith.
But Kessel answered for Pittsburgh when he beat Subban with a wrist shot following a Malkin faceoff win.
Kessel’s breakaway goal midway through the second put Pittsburgh in front for good. Malkin hit Kessel at centre with a stretch pass from his own goal-line and he finished the breakaway with a glove-side wrist shot.
To complete the hat trick, Hagelin hit Kessel with a long outlet pass and he beat Subban low to the glove side.
“I was just kind of going down and shooting,” Kessel said. “Nothing special. The pucks found me and I had two good plays.”
Guentzel’s blocker-side wrist shot 57 seconds later on a backhand feed from Sidney Crosby gave Pittsburgh a comfortable three-goal lead through two periods.
Kessel did all the damage before Pittsburgh’s last goal.
“We needed the win,” Kessel said. “I think we can get better. We just have to improve each game.”
NOTES: Vegas is 0-for-13 on the power play in five games. … Pittsburgh D Juuso Riikola made his NHL debut in place of D Olli Maatta, who was a healthy scratch. … The Penguins recalled G Tristan Jarry from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to back up DeSmith. Pittsburgh assigned D Derek Grant to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. … Tomas Hyka played on the third line for Vegas in place of Oscar Lindberg, who was a healthy scratch.
Vegas: Close a five-game road trip at Philadelphia on Saturday.
Penguins: Play their first road game at Montreal on Saturday.