PITTSBURGH — Phil Kessel shoves Evgeni Malkin in the back. He's got a devilish grin on his face as he jokes with the Russian star while the Penguins pose for their team photo.
Nine months into his stint with the Penguins, Kessel is feeling at home in Pittsburgh
"I think anywhere you go in the NHL the team always makes you feel welcome and the players always make you feel welcome," Kessel said in an interview after practice on Wednesday. "It was pretty quick that you felt welcome and this is your new home."
Starting the year with only 21 points in his first 37 games, Kessel has rung up 33 points in his last 39 games. He's played his best hockey with the club this month, posting 14 points in 15 games, including a career-high five in a recent win over Detroit.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan has described his recent play as the best he'd seen from Kessel since replacing Mike Johnston behind the Pittsburgh bench on Dec. 12, marvelling especially at the 28-year-old winger's passing ability.
Kessel, who joined the Penguins last summer following a six-year run in Toronto, has been playing most of the season with Malkin after failed connections with Sidney Crosby. He said the adapting in Pittsburgh wasn't that difficult, comparing it to the annual adjustment required every fall when new rosters take shape.
Typically reluctant to delve into his own performance, Kessel also didn't think much had changed recently despite the uptick in production and a recent NHL third star of the week nomination.
"Same old stuff," he said. "Just getting a little lucky right now."
"I haven't really changed anything," Kessel continued. "I've missed some chances this year also. They just went in the last couple games."
Kessel's last season as a Leaf was also his worst. He sputtered to 25 goals and 61 points following a 37-goal, 80-point performance one year earlier.
His per-minute production is up across the board this season, as are his puck possession numbers. He nonetheless remains on pace for some of the slimmest offensive numbers of his career even with the recent surge.
Kessel, currently at 54 points with six games to go, could finish with fewer than 60 points in a full season for the first time since 2009-10, during which he played only 70 games. With 23 goals, he could miss the 25-goal mark in a full season for the first time since he was a teenager in his second NHL campaign with the Boston Bruins.
The scoring chances remain, if not quite as frequent as during his younger years. Facing the Sabres on Tuesday night, Kessel had one great chance streaking down the right side which was stopped by Buffalo netminder Chad Johnson. Another effort in tight on a Penguins power play was also turned aside.
His decline, as well as his lengthy contract (which has six more years), personality and the team's decision to rebuild, were primary in Toronto trading him to Pittsburgh last July.
Kessel was the first major domino to move in the Leafs overhaul, joined by Dion Phaneuf seven months later.
"Once you get traded obviously it's over there," Kessel said of Toronto. "I love the city. I had a lots of friends there. But this is a business so you just take it like that and you move on."
"Toronto will always be home to me because I was there so long," he added. "I have tons of friends there and I think I'll always go back there and visit my friends."
The Penguins say he's fit in nicely, perhaps better suited as a complementary piece rather than the primary ingredient he always was in Toronto.
Pittsburgh is also rolling as Kessel plays his best hockey. The team has the third-most points since Dec. 21 (shortly after Sullivan's hiring) and is especially hot recently with wins in nine of the past 10 games, including a comeback shootout win against the Sabres.
Sneaking a shot past Johnson in the shootout, Kessel helped seal the victory, which further solidified the Penguins playoff chances. He's not looking ahead to his first post-season since 2013 though, hoping instead just to keep winning.
Kessel says his goals that way haven't changed much in time. Save for a gradually declining performance, not much has changed evidently for the person either.
"I think you always want to win," said Kessel. "I think that's the main goal for any player that comes in the league, he wants to win a Cup. That never changes."
Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press