The Penguins finally showed some defensive fortitude last night, beating the Golden Knights 4-2 after giving up 11 goals in their first two games. But much more fun than Casey DeSmith’s 35 saves in his season debut were the first three Penguins goals, which came in natural hat trick form courtesy of the very good dog owner Phil Kessel.
The stereotype of Kessel as some sort of wiener-scarfing, out-of-shape bum who somehow happens to be incredibly talented at hockey has been mostly debunked at this point. But still, the idea of this man speeding across the length of the ice behind an entire defense to put away a breakaway goal is undeniably amusing, and Kessel did it twice in six minutes to put some distance between his team and Vegas. I don’t care what his actual diet is—these scores are wonderful.
What makes Kessel’s first goals of the season all the nicer, at least if you’re a Penguins fan, is the fact that the winger spent his summer battling back against trade rumors, which had him possibly reuniting with former Penguins assistant coach Rick Tocchet out in Arizona. There were reasons to talk yourself into believing those rumors: Kessel was completely unproductive in a disappointing playoffs last year, scoring his lone goal in a 5-0 Game 4 win over the Flyers; he supposedly had/has an iffy relationship with head coach Mike Sullivan; his $6.8 million annual cap hit for the next four years may not be the most efficient use of that money; and his 92-point 2017–18 may have been the 31-year-old’s career peak.
But Kessel’s not going anywhere right now, and on a Penguins team still trying to bounce back from that second-round loss to the Capitals last year—and currently reeling from the news of Matt Murray’s concussion—he’s the most valuable forward not named Crosby or Malkin. For better or worse, Kessel could be the difference between a return to Penguin glory and another very good/not great year. Last night, seeing Kessel carry that responsibility was a very good sign.