PITTSBURGH — It’s been exactly 17 days since Phil Kessel found the back of the net.
You have to go all the way back to May 21 — the day of Pittsburgh’s 7-0 drubbing of Ottawa in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final — for Kessel’s last goal.
Since then, the Penguins have played six times. No. 81 has zero markers and just two assists. And with the Stanley Cup Final now a best-of-three-series, it’s become very apparent that the Pens — who have scored just twice in their last two games — need Kessel to step up.
Just ask Evgeni Malkin.
“It’s his time to score,” Malkin said following Wednesday’s practice. “We know he’s a great player and he’s in a tough situation but now it’s time to score.”
This is a bit of uncharted territory for Kessel.
Last year’s playoff, his first as a Penguin, was devoid of lengthy slumps. Sure, there was a five-game goalless drought against the Caps, and he failed to score in the final four games against San Jose. But the production was still mostly there. Kessel had six points in each of the first three rounds, then finished the Cup Final with four points in six games.
One of the most glaring differences from this year to the last are Kessel’s shot totals.
Last spring, he led all postseason skaters in shots on goal, with 98 through 24 games.
This year? Sixty-five through 23.
It’s something head coach Mike Sullivan has addressed on more than one occasion.
“He’s an elite shooter,” Sullivan said following Game 3. “He can score goals. We always try to encourage him to shoot the puck more because he has one of the best shots in the game, we believe.
“I think Phil is a guy, if one goes in for him, it certainly gives him a boost of confidence. We’re trying to encourage him to shoot the puck and think shot first.”
That plan hasn’t exactly come to fruition. Kessel’s seen his SOG total fall in each of the last three games, finishing with just two in the Game 4 loss in Nashville. All told, he has nine in the series. That’s a far cry from the opening round against Columbus, when he put 19 on goal in just five games.
Of course, these numbers don’t exist in a vacuum. There’s a multitude of reasons — like linemates, for example — that can affect statistics in a major way. On that note, it’s worth mentioning that Kessel skated alongside Malkin today, suggesting the two will play together in Game 5.
Malkin sounded excited for the opportunity.
“It’s our building, our emotion,” he said. “Me and Phil, we need to bring our game and help the team win.”