Specifically, for what appeared to be a heated exchange on the bench with linemate Evgeni Malkin.
It was, without question, one of the biggest talking points after the game. Even more than Kessel’s goal. Even more than the Penguins’ ability to scratch out a 1-0 win while losing two more players (Justin Schultz and Bryan Rust) to injury early in the first period while already playing without Kris Letang, Patric Hornqvist and Trevor Daley. Even more than Marc-Andre Fleury‘s shutout.
It was all Kessel and Malkin, all the time.
Every member of the Penguins that was asked about it completely downplayed it as one of those things that happens during the course of an intense, emotional game.
Especially when it comes to Kessel.
Said defenseman Ron Hainsey, “I’m sure he yelled at me at one point. He wanted the puck back. I think. You can’t really hear him out there.”
Chris Kunitz, the third member of that line, seemed to be laughing on the bench as the exchange took place next to him.
He was asked about that after the game, saying “Lots of things amuse me out there,” while also adding that “Phil is always talking. He just always wants the puck.”
But there was nobody that was more vocal about shooting down the “controversy” than Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. And he seemed to get more and more annoyed with each question, at one point finally saying “I think there are too many cameras on the bench.”
“I think you guys take things out of context,” snapped Sullivan. “You have no idea what conversation goes on on the bench. It’s an emotional game out there. They are heated. They are heated for all the right reasons. It is because they are invested. They want to win.
“Phil is an emotional guy, when he comes back to the bench, and he wants a pass, and he doesn’t get it, he lets a guy know. I have no problem with that. I don’t think our team has any problem with that. I think that is how we make progress, that is how we come together as a team, I think it brings energy to our bench and for me that is a good thing. It tells me we have a bunch of guys that are invested and want to win.”
Still, the conversation did not go away and Sullivan again had to keep talking about it.
“We encourage it,” said Sullivan. “First and foremost. we are encouraging our players to talk to one another. That is a good thing. I think communication is healthy. We are playing a game that is emotional. Sometimes a conversation can get a little heated.”
Sullivan insisted that he and his coaching staff are tuned in to the conversations taking place in front of them and know when they have to step in.
“Trust me when I tell you this, our coaching staff is very well aware of what is happening,” said Sullivan. “We monitor everything. We are tuned into the conversations in front of us. We believe they are productive. If we think they are not, or a distraction, that is usually one of us steps in. And these guys are respectful. They get it. They understand it. They are a mature group. They move by it.”
From there, he went on to talk about how it is not only something he is willing to accept and encourage, but how that type of emotion is an essential ingredient for a winning team.
“I think it’s hard to win and be ultra competitive with the absence of emotion,” said Sullivan.
“I think emotion is the fabric of our game. I think that is part of what makes our game as great as it is. As a coaching staff we don’t want to discourage that, we want to encourage that as long as it is channeled the right way. Let’s make sure we keep it above the line and that it’s productive. But I think it gives our team personality and that is what makes our team productive.”
Kessel’s goal on Monday was his sixth of the playoffs and allowed him to maintain his point-per-game average this postseason.
Since joining the Penguins before the start of the 2015-16 he has 36 points in 38 playoff games. Malkin is the only player on the team that has recorded more during the past two postseasons.