Penguins’ Phil Kessel coming into his own at opportune time

Sidney Crosby scored a pair of goals to help propel the Penguins to a 4-2 win over the Hurricanes.

Thursday evening didn’t start well for Phil Kessel.

Just 5:10 into the opening period, his Pittsburgh Penguins found themselves down 2-0 to the Carolina Hurricanes and No. 81 had a minus-2 rating.

However, the Pens rebounded from a poor start and Kessel was a key contributor in a come-from-behind victory.

Often throughout the season, the winger had been on either Sidney Crosby’s line or Evgeni Malkin’s, but recently he has found chemistry playing with Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino.

That trio combined for six points and was a catalyst in the Penguins’ 4-2 win – Crosby’s two goals didn’t hurt either.

“When we get that line going offensively we’re harder to play against,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan told reporters after the game. “We can’t rely on the same people all the time every night to score goals for us so when we get contributions throughout our lineup, that’s what helps us to continue to build on this momentum.

“I think what they were doing is they were supporting one another. They were staying close together when the puck was under pressure in the offensive zone so they can play that little give-and-go game and they can keep the puck, which allows them to make their plays coming out of that when they do create separation.”

Look at this terrific pass Kessel made to set up Bonino for the nail-in-the-coffin goal in the third period.

At one point during the action, the Penguins TV broadcast team said they felt Kessel was having perhaps his best game in a Penguins uniform. The two-time Olympian finished with one goal, one assist, turned his early minus-2 rating into a plus-1, and tied a season-high with seven shots on goal.

With Malkin expected to miss at least another five weeks with an upper-body injury, now would be the opportune time for Kessel to play his best hockey of the season.

We may have seen a glimpse of that Thursday.

The 28-year-old was acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs last summer and his first season in Pittsburgh has had its ebbs and flows. Through 70 games he has 21 goals, which puts him on pace to equal the 25 he scored in his final season with the Leafs.

Kessel is in the midst of his eighth consecutive 20-goal campaign, but has been criticized for his inconsistent play. After joining a high-octane offence like Pittsburgh’s, many felt Kessel, with his innate goal-scoring ability, would’ve been at the 30-goal mark at this point in the season.

“I think he’s fit in very well,” Penguins player development coach Mark Recchi told Sportsnet in a recent phone conversation. “I think he’s figuring it out as well. He’s coming into a new situation and I think he’s played good at some times and at times he can be better. He’s an important piece for our hockey club. We need him to be very good.”

Kessel gets more than his fair share of criticism, but a performance like the one he had Thursday could be a sign of things to come and should earn the respect of even the most cynical hockey fan.

“He’s a good guy,” Recchi added. “I played with him in Boston. He’s a really good kid. He wants to do well. He wants to do the right things…The whole organization is looking for a good [stretch run] from him and I think we will get that from him.”

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