PITTSBURGH – It’s an emotional game, right? Guys get pissed off sometimes, right? Sometimes it all gets caught on camera and goes around the internet in record time, right? And sometimes you drop a couple of F-bombs at your teammates, and then back it up by scoring a season-saving goal, right?
That, in a nutshell, would describe the evening Phil Kessel -- a guy who says “right?” at the end of almost every sentence – had in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final. Kessel is a player who can sometimes be exasperating to watch. Turns out, he loses it more often than any of us ever thought. According to his Pittsburgh Penguin teammates, Kessel yells at them all the time. Who knew? And who would have thought he could channel that rage into the goal that made the difference in the Penguins’ 1-0 win over the Ottawa Devils Senators.
By now, you’ve probably seen Kessel’s foot-stomping temper tantrums in Game 2 against an Ottawa team that makes you want to punch it in the throat. At one point, Kessel yells, clearly much to the amusement of teammate Chris Kunitz, that they, “have to move the f---in’ puck!” At least that’s what we think he said. Nobody is saying for sure, having suffered that unique form of amnesia hockey players get when something out of the ordinary happens.
“Just playing. We had a lot of chances, right?” Kessel said after the game. “To be honest, I think I yelled more than once tonight, so I don’t remember that time.”
Apparently, the same way Manny Ramirez was being Manny when he played for the Boston Red Sox, that’s a case of Phil being Phil. Penguins coach Mike Sullivan was privy to the conversations on the bench and loved the passion he saw from Kessel. He referred to it as a man’s argument.
“Phil’s an emotional guy,” Sullivan said. “When he comes back to the bench and he wants a pass and he doesn’t get it, he lets the guy know. I have no problem with that and I don’t think our team has any problem with that. It tells me he’s invested and I love that about the guy. He’s always like that. I think our players get a kick out of it, quite honestly.”
Kunitz, who could be seen with a smile on his face during one of Kessel’s tirades, seemed to find some humor in the midst of a heated game. “Lots of things amuse me out there,” Kunitz said.
As is the case with every playoff series, this one is beginning to take on an interesting identity. One of the narratives going into the series was that it was the Senators who were the plucky, resilient bunch. And they are. But the Penguins are doing a pretty good job of turning that theme on its ear. After losing Justin Schultz, the Penguins were down to five defensemen for most of the game. They also lost Bryan Rust to a Dion Phaneuf hit in the first period. Should Schultz be out for any significant length of time, that would leave the Penguins without their top three puck-moving defensemen – Kris Letang and Trevor Daley are already on the shelf. And if that doesn’t extinguish their chances of ultimately winning the Stanley Cup, it will almost certainly require a reset as to how the Penguins play going forward. With those three players out, much of the speed game upon which the Penguins relied to win the Stanley Cup a year ago vanishes.
Another theme that has emerged comes from the Senators, who give dishwater and drying paint a very good run for their money in the department of tediousness. They went almost 15 minutes at one point in Game 2 without recording a shot on goal. At times, it looked as though they were playing for the loser point at a time of the year when it doesn’t exist. Their style of play is very, very bad for the game. And much of the time, it’s very, very good for them. But there is absolutely no doubt that it bit them hard in Game 2 and anyone who is a fan of free-flowing hockey based on skill would be cheering for that to happen three more times in this series.
The Senators are a patient team that is comfortable playing in tight games. And now, with the Penguins missing so many key elements, the key to their success will be matching that level of patience, which they did in Game 2.
“There’s going to be shifts against a team that’s playing defense first, the way they are, and their counterattack mentality where there’s going to be shifts out there where you might not get much,” Sullivan said. “And we have to be OK with that. And that’s fine because they’re not getting much either.”
When asked what he thought of the entertainment value of the game, Senators coach Guy Boucher replied that he wasn’t watching it. He was coaching it. And for that, he should be eternally grateful.
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