He’s the second-leading active goal scorer among American-born players. One with a history of livin’ large on a big stage.
Yet Penguins winger Phil Kessel inexplicably was passed over when the United States team was assembled for the World Cup tournament last summer.
Bad idea. Especially for Columbus skipper John Tortorella, who coached Team USA and no doubt influenced the selection process.
Kessel was at his sharp-shooting best last night, torching Tortorella’s Blue Jackets for two huge goals, including the game-winner at 3:15 overtime to pace the Pens to a pulsating 4-3 victory in a key Metro Division battle.
Mobbed by teammates following his overtime tally, No. 81 grinned like the proverbial cat that swallowed the canary.
Kessel and his black-and-gold pals surely had last night’s game circled in red on their calendars. After all, the Blue Jackets had humbled them, 7-1, back on December 22 in Columbus. A defeat that shook the Pens’ collective confidence, if not their indomitable will.
The contest followed an eerily similar pattern. Shifting into top gear, the Pens had the early hop. Employing their heavy forecheck, the Blue Jackets began a push back midway through the opening frame.
“I think it was a hard-fought game on both sides,” noted Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “There wasn’t a lot of room out there and I thought both teams competed extremely hard.”
Kessel soon altered the script. The Wisconsin native traversed the Columbus zone until he found a shooting lane and let ‘er rip. The puck sailed past Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky at 13:37 for the all-important first goal.
In classic Viking fashion, Patric Hornqvist pounced on a loose puck 92 ticks before the first-period horn and nudged it home to give the Pens a 2-0 edge.
The locals were cruising until the latter stages of the second period, when Blue Jackets villain Brandon Dubinsky beat Matt Murray on a jam play from the slot to pare the Pens’ lead to one.
Fortunately, Nick Bonino responded in short order. Flashing his HBK form of last spring, “Bones” coolly flagged down a seeing-eye pass from rookie Jake Guentzel, threaded the puck around the flailing stick of Matt Calvert, and whipped a second-effort shot over Bobrovsky’s outstretched pad to restore the Pens’ two-goal margin.
Any thoughts of an easy victory vanished 29 seconds into the third period. Catching the Pens flatfooted, Alexander Wennberg converted a pretty feed from Pittsburgh-native Brandon Saad to make it 3-2.
Inspired, the Blue Jackets controlled play during the final 20 minutes of regulation, limiting their high-powered hosts to four shots on goal. Cam Atkinson knotted the score at 11:20, corralling a loose puck off the stick of Trevor Daley and firing it past Murray from the side of the net.
Atkinson, however, soon would wear the goat horns. The speedy Columbus forward impeded fellow All-Star Sidney Crosby on a breakaway two minutes into overtime to earn a hooking penalty. On the ensuing power play, Kessel scooped up a juicy Kris Letang rebound and smoked Bobrovsky to the glove side.
“It’s a big win,” said the Pens’ hero. “Obviously, we’re up 3-1 and you never want to let them come back in a game, but we kept fighting.”
That World Cup snub? A decision Tortorella may come to rue.
Matt Cullen returned to the lineup after missing six games with a foot injury. Opening the game on Crosby’s line, “Cully” assisted on the Penguins’ second goal.
Although he finished a minus-2, Chris Kunitz typified the Pens’ fighting spirit. The feisty winger dished out a game-high seven hits and dropped the gloves with Blue Jackets bruiser Boone Jenner. Hornqvist, Dubinsky and Jenner registered six hits apiece.
In a welcome turnabout, the locals controlled the faceoff circle, 29-25. Carter Rowney led the way, winning all six of his draws. Cullen (67 percent) and Crosby (54 percent) excelled, too.