Penguins’ Phil Kessel grows exasperated as goal drought hits 15 games
When Phil Kessel pulled a puck out of his skates and flicked it past goalie Matt Murray during a routine drill at Monday’s practice at PPG Paints Arena, a few of his teammates slammed their sticks on the boards in appreciation.
They have noticed what anyone who has watched Pittsburgh Penguins games in the past few weeks has noticed.
They were offering their support to a teammate who seems to be at his wits’ end. As his goal drought had reached 15 games, Kessel has become more and more exasperated.
“I don’t know. It feels like I’m not going to score again this year,” Kessel said after practice. “It happens, I guess. This year has been an interesting run, the last month, I’ll say. Hopefully, it changes.”
Kessel last scored Jan. 30 against Tampa Bay. In the 10 games that followed, he was largely invisible, managing a total of 13 shots on goal. That’s no way to break out of a scoring slump.
The last five games, however, have been a different story. Kessel has piled up a total of 20 shots in that span, putting pressure on opposing goaltenders and racking up countless near misses. His line, with left wing Zach Aston-Reese and center Evgeni Malkin, has been dangerous.
The Kessel of the last five games is the one the Penguins have grown accustomed to seeing over the past three-plus seasons.
“We have noticed it. It is significant, and if he continues to shoot the puck, he’ll score,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “That’s how we feel. Not only is he shooting the puck, but he’s getting quality chances. When players of that talent are shooting the puck and they’re getting quality looks, it’s only a matter of time before the puck goes in the net.”
The only trick is convincing Kessel of that.
“At this point, I don’t know,” Kessel said. “I’ve had some chances. It just won’t go in.”
In a lot of ways, a Kessel slump isn’t like slumps other players endure.
For one thing, it’s not without offensive production entirely. Kessel has managed 10 assists during his 15-game goal drought.
He has 21 goals and 65 points in 65 games this season. If he keeps up that pace, an 82-point season would tie 2011-12 for the second best of his career, trailing only the 92 points he put up last year.
For another thing, it’s all consuming. When other players have stretches where the puck won’t go in, they can focus on other parts of their game. Maybe they make sure they’re finishing their checks or playing good defense.
Kessel’s value is so tied to his scoring touch that when the points aren’t coming, he’s not meeting expectations.
In one important way, though, Kessel’s slump is like everyone else’s. Eventually, it leads to a lack of confidence.
That’s what Malkin found out earlier this season. Even though he’s one of the greatest scorers of his generation, his confidence waned while netting five goals in a 30-game span that stretched from Thanksgiving to the middle of February.
Kessel never once doubted his longtime linemate would snap out of it eventually, and now, Malkin has seven goals in his past eight games.
“He’s a good player. It happens,” Kessel said. “He’s come out of it, and he has a bunch of goals here. He’s coming along, and I expect him to have a good end of the year.”
For Kessel to follow his linemate’s lead, he figures he just needs to find a spark somewhere.
“One game hopefully I get three or something,” Kessel said. “Who knows? It happens like that. You need one and go from there.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .