Phil Kessel predictably downplayed the significance of his first game in a Penguins uniform.
Just another opportunity, Kessel said. Have to develop some chemistry. Get to know the linemates a little.
Boy, that didn’t take long.
Kessel, Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz enjoyed quite the get-to-know-you session during Tuesday’s 7-3 win over the Hurricanes at Consol Energy Center, one that could be measured by three goals, seven points and flat-out dominance.
“It was fun,” Kessel said. “Just getting a feel for it out there. Obviously have some work to still do, but it was a good start.”
And the chemistry?
“I thought it was alright,” Kessel continued. “Obviously it was the first time playing together, so as we go, it will build. We’ll learn some things about each other and work from there.”
Using only his left hand, Kessel finished a ridiculous tic-tac-toe play at 19:48 of the opening period, capping a four-goal Penguins outburst that put them ahead for good. He went forehand to finish a Crosby feed at 10:57 of the second and nearly completed the hat trick in the third.
Kunitz didn’t score but contributed two assists and won the faceoff that led to a power-play goal from Sergei Gonchar. Crosby set up Kessel, picked up a secondary assist on Kessel’s first goal and scored backhanded while fending off pressure, a fantastic effort even for Crosby.
“They looked pretty good, huh?” Olli Maatta responded when asked for his assessment of the Penguins top line.
Johnston praised Kessel’s ability to “hit holes off the puck,” something he likened to a wide receiver in football finding the soft spot in a zone … or at least that’s what I assumed he meant when he dropped a football reference postgame.
“If our guys can find him and get to read off of him … He has dangerous speed,” Johnston said.
Kind of an up-and-down night for Gonchar. On the ice for three goals against. Scored one of his own. Hey, at least it was on the power play.
Here’s Johnston on No. 55:
“Real good job on the power play. Gonch is a real good power-play player. He moved the puck well. Good deception. I thought him and (Brian) Dumoulin were a little bit hesitant in their own zone. I didn’t think they closed on people quick enough. They have to close on people quicker to be able to seal those plays and get the puck moving the other way. That’s probably the big thing that they can take out of that game.”
I wrote about Maatta for Wednesday’s print edition. Really, looking at this game, you could probably have thrown a dart blindfolded at the Penguins roster and found some intriguing storyline.
Pascal Dupuis returning from blood clots. Kessel’s debut. The first stop on the Chris Kunitz Redemption Tour. Sergei Plotnikov’s first game in North American.
I chose Maatta. Kind of happy how it worked out, too, after he gave the Penguins a 2-1 lead early when he blasted a pass from Evgeni Malkin past Hurricanes goaltender Cam Ward.
Maatta finished a plus-4 with that goal and an assist while playing 20:22, including 3:17 on the power play and 2:08 shorthanded. Registered four shots and blocked two. This from a kid who had a second major shoulder surgery just months after having a cancerous tumor removed from his thyroid.
A couple of Maatta gems:
On playing with Letang: “It was easy, I guess. He makes me look pretty good.”
On taking contact: “I think I got a couple of good (hits), which tested me and tested the shoulder. Felt good. The main thing is battling in corners. That felt good. You just have to get your mind into it. It’s a lot mental, too.”
On his goal: “Malkin saw me. I didn’t even have to yell. He sees that kind of play. He’s that good of player.”
Couple of quick hits here to wrap up:
=Johnston was really happy with what Kunitz did: two assists, even rating, three shots on goal and a hit in 15:57.
“I like Kuni’s jump,” Johnston said. “I thought he had a lot of jump (Tuesday). Good legs. He’s had good legs all camp. It looks like he has a lot more energy. That’s a positive sign for him right now.”
Johnston called him one of the “leading candidates” to play left wing on the top line.
=What to make of Daniel Sprong? Well, a lot. And we’ll get there.
But for now, Johnston said he’ll “get a long look” through training camp. Johnston also praised the selection of Sprong at No. 46.
“Sprong has a good stick,” Johnston said. “He’s strong on the puck. His awareness, he sees people all over the ice; he has good deception. I’m excited because he’s going to be a top winger.
“To get top wingers in an organization that has very good centers is very positive. That was a good pick by our scouts, especially getting him where we got him. All camp he’s gotten better.”
BE GRATEFUL to each other,