Phil Kessel ends scoring drought as Penguins blank Blue Jackets
During the famous HBK run that carried the Pittsburgh Penguins to the 2016 Stanley Cup, Phil Kessel cemented his reputation as a high-stakes player.
He scored a big goal in a big game again Thursday night, but the satisfaction of coming through in the clutch wasn’t the prevailing feeling that overtook him as he sat in his locker stall postgame.
This one was just a relief.
Kessel broke a career-long 16-game drought with a first-period goal, helping the Penguins to a 3-0 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets in a pivotal Eastern Conference matchup.
“I got lucky tonight,” Kessel said. “I thought it was going to come a little earlier than it did. It took me a while. Hopefully, now I can get a hot streak going or something.”
The win moved the Penguins into third place in the Metropolitan Division, two points up on Carolina and four points ahead of the Blue Jackets. The Penguins will have a chance to put Columbus is a really bad spot when the teams meet again Saturday night.
“I’ll take it any game, obviously, but it was nice to get one tonight,” Kessel said. “It was a big win for us.”
Kessel snapped his skid before the game was three minutes old.
With the Penguins on the power play, a point shot hit Evgeni Malkin at the right post and dropped down behind the goal line. Malkin passed to Kessel outside the left post for a shot that skidded along the ice and banked in off goalie Joonas Korpisalo.
Kessel had to wait out a replay review for potential goaltender interference before breathing easy.
“I thought, ‘If that one gets called back, I’m running pretty bad,’ ” Kessel said. “But fortunately, it didn’t.”
The PPG Paints Arena crowd, which gave Kessel an encouraging ovation when one of his many scoring chances went awry during Tuesday’s game against Florida, stood and cheered his 22nd goal of the season.
“The fans and the city have been great to me since I’ve been here,” Kessel said. “I’ve loved playing here. I have unbelievable memories here. They’ve been nothing but supportive, and I really appreciate it.”
His teammates congratulated him like it was the first goal of his career.
“The boys are happy for me,” Kessel said. “They know it’s been a while. Obviously when it goes that long, it gets a little frustrating, but these guys are supportive of me. I really appreciate them, too.”
Nick Bjugstad made it 2-0 in the second period and Sidney Crosby added an empty-netter in the final minute, but Kessel’s goal was all the offense the Penguins needed to improve to 8-0 in their last eight meetings with the Blue Jackets and 4-0-2 in their past six games overall.
Much of the pregame discussion centered around the decision Columbus coach John Tortorella made in net, sitting down starter Sergei Bobrovsky, who has struggled against the Penguins the past two seasons, in favor of Korpisalo.
The Blue Jackets backup performed well, making 28 saves, but he was outplayed by his counterpart at the other end of the ice. Matt Murray made 25 stops to record his fourth shutout of the season.
He was aided by a defense corps that played a particularly physical style of hockey.
Jack Johnson, Erik Gudbranson and Zach Trotman combined to record 18 hits.
“That’s the urgency that we have to play with,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “That’s the playoff mindset, just digging in and getting it done. All of our guys, I think, are making a commitment to playing the game hard, defending when we have to, blocking shots when we have to, making sure we take care of the scoring area.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review assistant sports editor. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .