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Crosby-Kessel line focused on wins, not hype with Penguins

| Friday, Feb. 19, 2016, 1:18 p.m.

The first time Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel played on a line together in Penguins training camp, the pairing was met with breathless anticipation.

How many goals would a sniper like Kessel rack up with Crosby serving him passes? How many points could Crosby accumulate with a high-end shooter on his wing?

They were going to be the most successful partnership since Ben met Jerry.

The pairing lasted seven games. Crosby was held scoreless in six of them. Kessel had two goals and an assist. Coach Mike Johnston scrapped the combination after the Penguins scored a total of 11 goals while getting off to a 3-4-0 start.

Crosby and Kessel were reunited Thursday night to much less fanfare. The Penguins had scored a total of two goals in their previous three games, so coach Mike Sullivan made a simple switch. Kessel moved up with Crosby and Chris Kunitz. Patrick Hornqvist slid down to the second line with Carl Hagelin and Matt Cullen.

The players were informed just before the game, and the combo was unveiled when Crosby and Kessel were in the starting lineup. No hullabaloo. Just two guys showing up for work.

“When guys see the lineup's different, I don't think anybody panics,” Crosby said. “We just realize, hey, we haven't scored a ton. Everyone wants to make sure we're doing what we can to contribute. I think that's the message you get as players.”

The immediate results were striking. Kessel scored twice as the Penguins cruised to a 6-3 victory over Detroit.

After practice Friday, Crosby admitted the pairing feels a little different this time, largely because of the date on the calendar.

“At that point, everyone's got predictions. Now it's all about winning. That's the focus. That's all we're worried about,” Crosby said. “I think when you have to answer questions about it, you probably put that pressure and that expectation on yourself, too. At this point, we're focused on winning games. That can allow you to kind of have that workmanlike mentality.”

Sullivan said he didn't watch any Johnston-era video of Crosby and Kessel together before deciding to reunite the pair. He consulted with the coaching staff and played a hunch.

“It was more my gut feeling that maybe this might work,” Sullivan said. “Sometimes when players don't play together for a while and you put them together, there's a spark. Our hope was that would occur.

“Phil obviously is a goal scorer. He can really shoot the puck. Regardless of who Sid plays with, Sid is a guy that is going to make everybody around him better. That's the nature of his game. So we felt the time was probably right, given the fact that we struggled to generate goal scoring a few games in a row. Maybe if we tweaked it a little bit we might get a spark.”

Kessel's first goal Thursday was a perfect example of what the duo can accomplish.

While Crosby stickhandled through the offensive zone, nearly every Red Wings defender on the ice was fixated on him.

Kessel breezed up the right wing largely undetected, took a pass from Crosby and buried a shot.

“I think, especially off the rush, we did some good things,” Crosby said. “Getting some more zone time game to game, if you're able to do that, create some chances and force mistakes, you give yourself a better chance to be consistent. To get some goals right off the bat is a good boost. For us as well as the team to have a goal-scoring game like that is good. We'll look to keep getting better here. It doesn't get any easier.”

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

Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby celebrates with Phil Kessel after Kessel's goal in the third period against the Red Wings on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016, at Consol Energy Center.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Phil Kessel looks for a rebound as Hurricanes goaltender Cam Ward makes a glove save in the third period Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, at Consol Energy Center.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins Sidney Crosby plays against the Ducks Monday. Feb. 8, 2016 at Consol Energy Center.
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