PITTSBURGH — The Ottawa Senators had pushed Phil Kessel to the edge. He ranted and raved between shifts, and at one point appeared to engage in the most intense game of rock paper scissors you’ve ever seen.
On a night low on actual highlights, he was a one-man meme show. Twitter gold.
"He was getting pretty upset it looks like," observed Clarke MacArthur, Kessel’s former teammate and good friend.
After getting mad he got even.
So did Kessel’s Pittsburgh Penguins in an Eastern Conference final that has pitted patience vs. passion, with some frustration sprinkled in for good measure.
This is how it will be.
The Senators are endeavouring to squeeze the life out of every contest in the name of equalizing the gap in high-end talent. They are deploying tactics designed to lull opponents to sleep – at least when not prompting them to smash water bottles in anger.
It is a game played in the mud and it has carried them into the middle of May. They might have left PPG Paints Arena up 2-0 in the series if not for Kessel, who followed up on a shot blocked by Jean-Gabriel Pageau to score in stride with less than seven minutes to play in regulation.
"If you give him chances he’s going to score," MacArthur said after Pittsburgh’s 1-0 victory on Monday.
Kessel downplayed his emotional outbursts. At one point, the cameras appeared to catch him imploring linemate Evgeni Malkin to pass the puck and it was Malkin who carried it through the neutral zone – past Zach Smith and around Mark Stone – before sliding it into the middle to his winger.
"We had a lot of chances, right?" said Kessel. "Obviously it’s an emotional game, there’s ups and downs, and we found a way."
This is down to a war of attrition. The Penguins have played more than 200 games over the last two seasons and Ottawa is gearing up for No. 97 since October.
Pittsburgh’s diminished blue-line suffered another potential blow on Monday when Justin Schultz left with an apparent right shoulder injury following a hit from Mike Hoffman. That puts them down three top puck-movers with Kris Letang already done for the season and Trevor Daley out injured as well.
This is how Ottawa wants to play, remember, by keeping well within themselves and waiting, waiting, waiting for one moment to strike. They make no apologies for channelling the spirit of the 1995 New Jersey Devils or turning the game into a "slop-fest," as one player so eloquently put it.
"I’m not watching it," said head coach Guy Boucher. "I’m coaching it."
The only problem with Game 2 is they completely abandoned any semblance of an offensive push – even with the score tied 0-0 in the third period, and even with Kessel and Malkin growing visibly upset.
At one point nearly 19 minutes passed between shots on Marc-Andre Fleury, a stretch that forced the Pittsburgh goaltender to skate into his corners during stoppages in play to keep his mind focused.
"I think we got a little bit too passive," said centre Kyle Turris. "We have to stay a little more aggressive in the offensive end. I mean defensively we played strong, but we’ve got to find a way to do both."
"We kept it tight all the way till the end and we gave ourselves a chance," added captain Erik Karlsson.
That might as well be the motto of this lunch bucket crew, right along with: Why not us? Why not now?
Here in Pittsburgh they signalled their intent to stretch this series out longer than most predicted. They certainly didn’t seem disappointed at the end of an evening where the Penguins dominated zone time with almost 61 per cent of shot attempts at even strength.
"We’re hockey players, but we’re not that dumb," said MacArthur. "We knew we weren’t going to get four in a row."
The battle lines have been drawn. The Penguins are dropping like flies with injuries and Ottawa is ready to hang around and wait for an opportunity.
Pittsburgh felt like it proved something by fighting through the first wave of frustration – "We have some talented guys, but we don’t have to win a game 7-6," said coach Mike Sullivan – and the Senators returned home pledging to rebuild the Kanata Wall.
"I think the structure we play with is frustrating for anybody," said Turris. "They’ve got a lot of skill over there. Trying to make plays through our structure can be difficult at times.
"That’s our goal, right?"
Kessel yelled and screamed and then broke the game right open.
Ottawa may be doing what it wants, but the Penguins are more than happy to see No. 81 react in that animated fashion.
"It tells me he’s invested," said Sullivan. "I love that about the guy. Yeah, he’s always like that. I think our players get a kick out of him, quite honestly.
"He’s a vocal guy, he’s an emotional guy and he’s all in. He wants to win."
It’s an emotional game, right?