Phil Kessel is relatable, which is a nice way of saying that he’s large and goofy. But as with all world-class athletes, we must resist the urge to see too much of our pathetic selves in him. Kessel is, obviously, one of the most talented offensive players in hockey—he’s quietly having a hell of a postseason, now up to 14 points in 14 games after scoring the lone goal in Pittsburgh’s Game 2 win—and his very visible frustrations, with himself and with his teammates, were a rare glimpse of what that Penguins locker room knows: He’s hypercompetitive even in a world of hypercompetitors. Hug him at your own peril when he’s fired up. (I’d try anyway.)
The Penguins were stymied for most of the night, by goalie Craig Anderson and by a neutral-zone clogging, shot blocking Ottawa defense. They could not afford to go down 0-2 in two home games, and yet they just couldn’t seem to break through—Kessel didn’t even have a shot on goal until 13:05 into the third. That bothered him, as did issues with linemates Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz. (It appears Kessel’s complaint was an eternal one—he always wants the puck, and will let you have it if he thinks he was open and you didn’t feed him.)
So Kessel, throughout the game, let his teammates know exactly what he was thinking:
Kessel’s chirping was the story of the postgame, with Mike Sullivan chalking it up to his desire to win, adding, “I think the rest of our team gets a kick out of him.” I think they do:
This was all very charming to watch from afar, as they’re not my bones an angry Kessel wants to grind to make his bread. And those bench beefs are retroactively elevated to the status of motivation because Kessel eventually broke through. Malkin made a tough zone entry and found Kessel at the top of the circles; his first shot was blocked by Jean-Gabriel Pageau but it settled right back on his blade, and his second shot beat an awkwardly positioned Anderson for the 1-0 lead and, ultimately, the game.
How close is the difference between a tied series and a worst-case scenario of potentially heading to Ottawa down 0-2? You can kind of see it in the video, and Anderson spoke about it after the game, but his skate blade caught in the ice, preventing him from moving to his left to get in front of Kessel’s shot. Luck is real, but it counts just the same.
Afterward, no one wanted to talk about anything but Kessel’s demonstrative display—or at least that’s all they were getting asked about.
“To be honest, I think I yelled more than once tonight,” Kessel said. “I don’t remember that time.”
“Lines go back and forth and talk to one another and I think it brings juice to the bench,” Sullivan said. “Phil’s an emotional guy. When he comes to the bench and he wants a pass and he doesn’t get it, he lets a guy know. I don’t dwell on it and I don’t think our team has any problem with it. I think that’s how we make progress. That brings energy to our bench and that’s a good thing. We’ve got guys who are invested and want to win.”
The Post-Gazette’s Sean Gentille brings up a couple excellent points on the narrative of Kessel’s barking, first that it looks very different—a whole lot better—because the Penguins won. If they had fallen into a 0-2 series hole, the second line yelling at each other all game (and Kessel and Malkin appeared to be exchanging genuine annoyance) would absolutely become A Thing. Mitigating that is the fact that this sort of thing goes on all the time, and only some excellent and dedicated camerawork made last night appear out of the ordinary.
Mike Sullivan had some interesting things to say about disagreements on the bench, and he’s worth quoting at length. From the Tribune-Review:
“I think it helps our overall team game,” Sullivan said. “I think progress is made. So we call it a man’s argument. That’s the way it is. I think lines go back and forth and talk to one another. I think it brings juice to the bench.”
There are limits to what Sullivan is OK with, of course. It’s not a free-for-all on the bench.
“Trust me when I tell you this. Our coaching staff is very well aware. We monitor everything that goes on on the bench,” Sullivan said. “(Assistant coach Rick) Tocchet and I are pretty tuned in to the conversations that take place in front of us, and we believe they’re productive. If we think they’re not or they become a distraction, that’s usually when one of us steps in, and these guys are respectful. They get it. They understand it. And they’re a mature group. They move by it.”
If necessary, Sullivan said he will mediate disputes that linger longer than others.
“It depends on what the conversation was,” Sullivan said. “If it warrants it, yes. If it doesn’t, no. A lot of times we just move by it. If we think the conversation escalates to the point where it becomes a distraction, then that’s usually where I step in and tell them enough, move on, and they do.”
The whole episode was an enlightening look at a bench dynamic we don’t usually get to see, and at one of the many coaching duties that go beyond rolling lines. There’s so much more going on out there than we’ll ever be privy to, but every bit sheds a little more light on the personality of a team, and on a player who’s certainly not lacking in it.