TAMPA, Fla. – That Phil Kessel would remake his image after getting traded out of Toronto was basically a pre-ordained outcome from the moment the transaction was completed.
So much of the conversation around him during his days with the Maple Leafs focused on all of the things he was perceived not to be. Not committed enough, not good enough at both ends of the ice, not enough of a leader.
Too rarely did it properly take into account what he actually is and was: A ridiculously gifted offensive player. A difference-maker.
We’ve certainly seen that on a Penguins team now two wins away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final expressly because general manager Jim Rutherford went out and acquired him last July 1. The “HBK” line has tipped the ice in Pittsburgh’s favour during these playoffs, and Kessel is its triggerman.
“When you look at their team, Phil Kessel probably doesn’t get near the respect he deserves,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said after Wednesday’s 4-2 loss. “I mean, he’s scored a ton of goals in this league.”
He scored one more during a dominant Game 3 win by the Penguins and picked up the primary assist on another from Carl Hagelin. The third member of the unit is centre Nick Bonino and something they all share in common is that each of them was acquired in a trade since the end of last season.
No wonder Rutherford was named as a finalist for GM of the Year on Wednesday afternoon.
His biggest splash was going out and getting Kessel in a deal that took some time to come together. It must be awfully gratifying for the GM to see No. 81 leading his team in scoring during the playoffs and starting to generate some Conn Smythe talk.
What he’s done is make the Penguins an awfully tough team to match up against. That was as apparent as ever while they outshot Tampa 48-28 in a game where they comfortably rolled four lines.
“You don’t win consistently without that,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “That line’s been great all playoffs long. I mean, you look at the way that Phil’s playing tonight and the way he used his speed, his shot, he creates so much. Haggy’s got a ton of speed. And Bones is a really smart player.
“They’ve been really good.”
For a time, it appeared that 21-year-old goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy might have the Lightning in position to steal a victory. He made 30 saves before the second intermission and nearly kept it 0-0.
That changed with 10 seconds remaining in the middle period after Kessel rushed the puck up ice on a turnover and got a shot on goal, allowing Hagelin to cash in the rebound. He then made it 2-0 just over five minutes into the third by putting a nice Bonino pass off the far post and in.
“When we play a simple game and we put the puck behind them and we use our speed, that’s where we’re tough to beat,” said defenceman Kris Letang. “I think you saw it from the Bonino line. They used their speed wide, they put the puck behind and they made big plays at the end.”
“They’ve been awesome for quite a while here,” added veteran centre Matt Cullen. “Tonight they were exceptional.”
The Lightning are a battle-tested group with plenty of their own offensive talents, but they must feel a little like they’ve stared into the sun here. Pittsburgh leads the shot counter 114-69 on aggregate through three games and has dominated possession in each of them.
What the Penguins have done is basically render Ben Bishop’s injury absence moot – with Cooper suggesting that it wouldn’t have been enough if both he and Vasilevskiy were in goal together for this one.
“The way things have gone these (last) two games, it doesn’t matter who’s in net,” said Cooper.
This is undoubtedly the toughest challenge the Lightning have faced in the playoffs so far.
If they don’t find another gear on Friday night, the Eastern Conference final could slide away from them quickly.
“They played better – it’s just as simple as that,” said Tampa defenceman Anton Stralman. “A lot of it I think is self-inflicted too. They’re a really good team but we just kind of feeding them a lot right now. We need to clean up.”
They’ll also have to find an answer for Kessel, who is up to 16 points in 14 games this spring (and 37 points in 36 post-season games during his career).
He’s clearly a big-game player that didn’t get enough opportunity to play in big games over six years with the Leafs. That seems to be a much more apt view of his situation.
There’s no question he’s enjoying his new surroundings.
Believe it. This is Kessel now: Smiling, laughing and scoring on hockey’s biggest stage.