Phil Kessel's hat trick lifts Penguins past Golden Knights
After allowing 11 goals in their first two games of the season, the Pittsburgh Penguins spent a week of practice diligently working on their play without the puck.
So how did they manage to rebound with a 4-2 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday night?
With stifling neutral-zone structure? With a convoy of shot-blockers sealing off the front of the net? With a turnover-free night while handling the puck?
They did it with Phil Kessel doing Phil Kessel things, and a healthy dose of Casey DeSmith for good measure.
The popular winger recorded the sixth hat trick of his career and first since joining the Penguins in 2015, and the backup goalie made 35 saves in his first start of the year, leading the team to its second win in three games this season.
"I thought we were OK," Kessel said. "Obviously it's three games in. We need to just get better throughout the year and keep stringing together some wins."
Kessel scored two breakaway goals in a six-minute span of the second period to break open a 1-1 game.
Malkin set up the first with a long lead pass up the middle of the ice. Carl Hagelin set up the second with a bank pass off the boards.
"Sometimes you cheat. Sometimes you don't," Kessel said. "Tonight, the pucks found me. Two good plays."
In fairness to Kessel, it's probably not accurate to say he cheated on either breakaway. He made great reads, picking the perfect moment to fly the defensive zone once it was clear one of his linemates was about to possess the puck.
"There's always a fine line between anticipation and cheating," coach Mike Sullivan said. "Certainly Phil has a knack for seeing those windows of opportunity, and obviously he has explosive speed so he can create that separation when he needs to."
Less than a minute after Kessel's third goal, Sidney Crosby made a rink-wide back-hand pass to set up Jake Guentzel for a goal from the left circle to make it 4-1.
In what might be a Pittsburgh hockey first, the goal prompted a chant from the PPG Paints Arena crowd for the opponent's backup goalie.
"Fleu-ry, Fleu-ry," fans chanted, hoping to get a glimpse of longtime Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who didn't start Thursday because he played the night before in Washington. To their dismay, coach Gerard Gallant let Malcolm Subban finish things up.
At the other end of the ice, DeSmith had a stellar night after being pressed into action when Matt Murray suffered a concussion on Monday.
"I thought he was the best player on the ice," Sullivan said.
DeSmith's most memorable stop came late in the second period when he made a blocker save on a Pierre-Edouard Bellemare shot on a two-on-none with former Penguins winger Ryan Reaves.
"He has the shot option, pass option," DeSmith said. "I had to challenge a little bit, but I also had to get a little bit of motion so I could get over there and hopefully get something in front of it."
In general, Sullivan considered the performance only a slight improvement after a tough week of practice following a 5-1 loss to Montreal last Saturday night.
"I don't think we had the puck nearly as much as we need to have it in order for us to be at our best," Sullivan said. "Having said that, I could see guys making more of a concerted effort to defend and be on the right side of the puck in certain situations."
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.