Cooper: Kessel ‘probably doesn’t get near the respect he deserves’

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Phil Kessel can be, well, a polarizing figure.

He’s a scorer, hitting the 30-goal plateau five times in 10 seasons and that was a huge reason why the Pittsburgh Penguins acquired him in a blockbuster trade with Toronto last summer.

He’s also been a lightning rod for criticism, like when his former coach Ron Wilson offered quite a take on Kessel after the firing of Randy Carlyle in Toronto.

Now, it needs to be pointed out that Wilson did say a team can “…win with Phil Kessel.” But he also said a team can’t rely on Kessel.

On a Penguins team that possesses stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, Kessel — also a star — has certainly been reliable in these playoffs.

Playing on that dynamic HBK Line with Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino — which combined for five points on Pittsburgh’s first two goals of Wednesday’s game — Kessel is up to seven goals now in this post-season. That’s new ground for him. He leads the Penguins with those seven goals and 16 points, which also puts him third in the league in that category during the playoffs. Only Brent Burns and Logan Couture have more points.

On Wednesday, after scoring and adding an assist in the Penguins’ 4-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 3, taking a 2-1 series lead in the Eastern Conference Final, Kessel received a pretty high compliment from Jon Cooper, as the opposing head coach addressed a question about that vaunted HBK Line.

“I think, like when you look at their team, Phil Kessel probably doesn’t get near the respect he deserves,” Cooper told reporters.  “I mean, he’s scored a ton of goals in this league.”