Kessel's strong play leads Penguins to shootout win in Carolina

| Friday, Feb. 12, 2016, 2:06 p.m.

RALEIGH, N.C. — After the Penguins were blanked by the New York Rangers on Wednesday night, coach Mike Sullivan offered up an innocuous assessment of Phil Kessel's impact on his team's fortunes.

“When Phil scores, we're a better team,” Sullivan said.

By the end of Friday night's game, the coach proved prescient.

Kessel scored the team's lone goal in regulation as the Penguins eked out a 2-1 shootout victory over the Carolina Hurricanes, winning for the seventh time in their last nine games.

“He was in the battle areas. He was on the puck. When he had the opportunity to shoot the puck, he'd shoot the puck. He was moving his feet,” Sullivan said. “For me, those are Phil's strengths. When Phil skates and he works, he's a dangerous guy.”

With little of note going on and the end of the second period approaching, Kessel gave the Penguins a 1-0 lead after working a cycle with Matt Cullen.

Kessel came out of the left-wing corner with the puck, and goalie Cam Ward left him a small window on the short side. Kessel hit it and guided a shot between the goalie's hip and stick and the post with 4 minutes, 17 seconds to go in the period.

“A pretty tight angle, but it was a good goal,” Cullen said. “It wasn't like it was a fluke goal. He sees that hole and shoots it. Not many guys see that hole and put it there. I thought Phil was really good tonight.”

It probably wouldn't be accurate to say Kessel was in a slump coming into Friday's game. He had a perfectly respectable total of 14 points in his previous 17 games. But Kessel is a sniper, and he hadn't sniped much lately with four goals during the 17-game stretch.

He seemed determined to change that almost from the drop of the puck against the Hurricanes, firing pucks at Ward every chance he got. Kessel's goal came on his ninth shot attempt of the game and the 15th shot attempt for his line.

“He shoots the puck differently than most guys,” Sullivan said. “It comes off his stick in a way that's different. I don't know how else to explain it. He can really zip it.”

The Hurricanes, on the fringes of the Eastern Conference playoff race, did not go away in the third period. They eventually tied the score 1-1 when Andrej Nestrasil came off the right half-wall with the puck and fired a shot past Marc-Andre Fleury with 5:18 to go.

“They had a little bit more jump than we did,” Fleury said.

Between a concussion that cost him eight games in December and a rough patch coming out of the All-Star break that saw him give up nine goals on 37 shots in a two-game span, Fleury hasn't had the smoothest sailing lately.

He was on top of his game Friday, making 29 saves. He kept the Penguins in it during some rough moments early and stopped all three Hurricanes attempts in the shootout.

“I felt pretty good,” Fleury said. “Got a few shots right away, so it was easy to get in the game.”

The Penguins won in the third and final round of the shootout when Kris Letang lifted a nasty backhand shot under the crossbar.

“I see them in practice a lot,” Fleury said. “Nice to see him score on somebody else.”

Kessel suffered an injury scare when he was struck in the upper right arm by the skate of John-Michael Liles midway through the second period. Kessel went to the locker room for a short time but quickly returned to the ice.

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

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