“I know I can play better a little bit on the ice,” said Malkin, who leads the NHL in postseason points with 26 in 23 games and had goals in Games 1 and 2 in Pittsburgh. “It’s time. It’s a good time to show your best game because there’s only three games left and we have two, three months summertime.”
What does he expect out of Kessel, who had an assist in Game 2 and nothing else against the Nashville Predators?
“He score. I mean, it’s his time to score. You know, he’s great player, and he like play tough situation, and now it’s time to leadership show good games, time to score,” said Malkin.
“Main people, we need big game. It’s how teams win.”
Yeah, it is. The Penguins lost both games in Nashville. Malkin and Kessel didn’t create a goal between them.
This is not a coincidence.
Phil The Thrill
Phil Kessel doesn’t exactly love the media, which shouldn’t exactly shock you. He has a bit of social anxiety, and frankly hasn’t always been treated fairly by the fourth estate – two words: “hot dogs.”
He’s even less motivated to put up with our nonsense when things haven’t been going well for him, which they haven’t this this series. And so with a few reference to “they made me do this,” Phil spoke on Wednesday for the first time in the series since Media Day.
How tough are the Predators?
“I mean it’s tight. Obviously they’re a good team, they’re here for a reason. They’ve got a lot of good players, they work hard and they create their own luck. Like I said, it’s 2-2 and we’ve got to battle in the next couple games here.”
Do you feel pressure now that the series is tied?
“I mean we won last year, so I think we’ve been there before. Obviously it’s a big stage, it means a lot, but I don’t think there’s that much pressure. I mean there’s pressure but I don’t think it’s that crazy.”
Are you healthy?
“I feel pretty good. A couple games left and hopefully they go our way.”
And so on.
He’s been an slightly better than even Corsi player, including 25 shot attempts in the two games in Nashville. But the production hasn’t been there for Kessel, who hasn’t scored a goal since Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Ottawa Senators.
“I had a couple chances. You know, I missed the net a couple times where I probably should have hit the net. It happens. It’s hockey, right?” said Kessel on Wednesday.
That it is.
Coach Mike Sullivan bounced Kessel around in Game 4, playing him with Malkin and with Matt Cullen at center, and he’s confident Kessel can adapt quickly to those line shifts.
“I think he thinks the game quickly. I think he processes the game quickly. As a result, that’s an indication of why he’s as good a passer as he is, because he sees the opportunities and he’s able to execute on them,” he said.
It’s been an interesting ride for Kessel in these playoffs. Overall, he has 20 points in 23 games, with seven goals. He had 22 points in 24 games last season with 10 goals playing on the heralded HBK Line with Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin (and should have won the Conn Smythe, on our humble non-voting opinion).
“He’s getting the chances. It’s going to go in sooner or later,” said Hagelin. “I think he’s a guy that needs to score. When he’s playing at his best, he’s scoring goals.”
“When he shoots, good things happen,” said Sidney Crosby of Kessel, “whether it’s him scoring or [setting it up] for other guys. He’s got a great shot. It’s hard for goalies to handle. If he’s getting those looks, I’m like the chances of the puck going in.”
Kessel won the Stanley Cup for the first time in his career, and contributed majorly to it, coming after years of questions about his motivation from the Toronto media. And now he’s gunning for two in a row.
“Obviously it would be pretty sweet, wouldn’t it? To play here two years and win two?” said Kessel. “I think after it was said and done, the time in the locker room was pretty special [last season]. You battle with all these guys for the whole year and through the playoffs. We’ve got a great group of guys here and we want to win for each other so I think that’s the best part.”
They’re still just two wins away from that goal.
Geno Is Not Tired
Evgeni Malkin is having fun. “Most fun is just three games left. I mean, it’s close,” he said.
How tired is he?
“I know people talk about we tired, but they tired too. So it’s not like only we tired. It’s just only thinking of playoff life. We not talk about tired. It’s only like 180 minutes to (go), and it’s just like, ‘play right,’ you know?” he said.
“We have four good lines, we have young guys, they flying, and I’m not tired myself. I want to play because it’s so much fun right now, you know? Because we play in final, you know? I not feeling I’m tired. I feel exciting tomorrow, and I can’t wait.”
Nashville has done an excellent job trying to curb his enthusiasm.
Malkin has seen copious amounts of P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm from the Predators in this series, and he’s been fairly dominated by them at even strength: Malkin has a 38.89-percent Corsi rating, generating 28 shot attempts and yielding 44 to the Predators.
He was famously held without a shot in Game 3, along with Sidney Crosby. The captain responded with a goal in Game 4. Malkin was shut down again.
“We try to stay close, stay tight, try not to give too much space and time with the puck,” said Ekholm recently, when asked about Malkin. “We’re just trying to be hard to play against. Be in their face, all game long.”
Malkin, who may have entered the Final as the Penguins’ leader for the Conn Smythe, returns home, where he’s played his best hockey in the playoffs: Six goals and 11 assists in 12 games, a healthy chunk of his overall point total.
“It’s fun to play here tomorrow, play at home, whole family here, every player, parents, grandmothers. It’s fun to see everyone is here, everyone to support us,” he said.
“Of course I want more. Game 3, I have zero shots, it’s not my game. I need to use more puck, go to net, shoot more. It’s not easy, but I can play better for sure, and I try my best tomorrow.”
The Penguins have shown an unparalleled resiliency in these playoffs. Part of that resiliency is a reliance on their star players to make a play when necessary. Crosby bounced back with a huge goal in the Game 4 loss, the third game in the series in which he’s scored a point. Now the focus returns to Malkin and Kessel, as the Penguins face the prospect of returning to that madhouse in Nashville with their season on the line.
Time to reverse those fortunes. Time to dig deep, lead by example. And after two games in which the Penguins couldn’t must more than a goal, above all else it’s ‘time to score.’
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