By Sean Hartnett
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A sleeping giant has awoken in the reconstructed and re-energized Pittsburgh Penguins.READ MORE: 16-Year-Old Isaiah Levine Killed In Double Shooting On Lower East Side, Second Victim In Hospital
After two consecutive playoff exits at the hands of the Rangers, the Pens have their swagger back and speed to burn.
“What I love about our team is we’ve been down in games and we don’t get rattled,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said. “We just keep playing. This team has grown so much over the past three months, where we don’t let the different ebbs and flows and the adversities of the game affect us.”
The Penguins could be headed toward a first-round collision with the Rangers. Sunday’s 3-2 overtime victory over the Blueshirts was mostly an even game, but it offered hints to why the Pens could cause a lot of trouble for the Rangers in a seven-game series.
As things stand right now, the Rangers would take the second seed in the Metropolitan Division and the Pens would finish third. The Islanders are currently manning a wild card place having played one game less than Pittsburgh and trail the Pens by three points.
With wins in eight of their last nine, the Penguins look like the kind of team no team wants any part of, and this is with star forward Evgeni Malkin on the injured reserve and key defenseman Olli Maatta sidelined with an undisclosed injury. Even without Malkin’s power play mastery and ability to drive the offense, the Pens are a dangerous bunch.
Phil Kessel and former Ranger Carl Hagelin tormented the Blueshirts with their jet-like speed throughout Sunday’s victory, constantly getting to the outside and making New York’s defenders look flatfooted. There were moments when Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh and Chris Kreider got left in the dust when the Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel line was on the ice.
“On the scoresheet, it’s pretty obvious to see what they’re doing,” Pens captain Sidney Crosby said. “They’re putting up a lot of points and generating a lot of opportunities and momentum for us. It’s huge. We’re getting a big boost from those guys. With their speed, everybody saw Hags play here for years. You see how fast he is. We’re used to playing against that. To have him on our team is nice. Same with Kess. When he gets a step on the outside, it’s really tough to stop him. You saw today some of the shots he got away, his snap shot is one of the most dangerous in the league. So, when he gets that open space — he creates a lot.”
Hagelin and Kessel are forming dangerous chemistry and compliment each other with their speed and relentless puck pursuit. Previously, Kessel’s work rate and back checking had been questioned. Lately, he’s playing like a two-way dynamo.READ MORE: Tony Award-Winning Temptations Musical 'Ain't Too Proud' Reopens On Broadway
“I thought his last two games might be his best games since I’ve been here,” Sullivan said of Kessel. “You can see his speed through the neutral zone. He’s going to the battle areas. He’s in front of the net, he’s down in the trenches. I think Phil is playing hard right now. It’s really evident with his speed. He’s a dangerous guy. I’ve said on a number of occasions, when the puck comes off his stick — it comes off his stick differently. That shot he hit the crossbar in the second period, that’s as hard of a shot I’ve seen all year.”
And it’s not just the Pens or their coaching staff who hold Pittsburgh’s second line in high regard. Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist spoke of the challenge of limiting the line’s chances.
“I think their second line is really strong, a lot of speed,” Lundqvist said. “When Kessel skates like that he’s one of the better players in the league, and Hags with his speed. So, it’s a tough team to defend with that kind of speed, but we did a pretty good job of keeping them to the outside. When they get going, it’s definitely challenging.”
Hagelin now has 21 points in 30 games with the Penguins. Kessel has an otherworldly seven points (two goals, five assists) in his last two games and is averaging 0.72 points per game since donning black and gold.
“I think it’s great, I’ve played with him since game once since I got to this team,” Hagelin said. “We have good chemistry. We both like to use our speed to create offense, pretty good on the rush. His wrist shot is one of the hardest I’ve ever seen. It’s not only his speed and shot. He’s a smart player out there, he sees the ice very well and makes plays. He’s fun to play with and very unselfish.”
Though Hagelin and Kessel deserve a ton of credit for giving the Pens an game-changing infusion of speed, Sullivan’s effect on the Penguins shouldn’t be overlooked. Sullivan has simplified the way Pittsburgh plays and they’re creating all kinds of high-percentage chances.
Sullivan simplifying the more complicated system of predecessor Mike Johnston hasn’t just benefited Hagelin and Kessel. As a whole, the Penguins have been routinely executing intricate, eye-catching sequences of passes.
Sullivan has allowed the Penguins’ talents to take over and that’s a scary thing for the entire Eastern Conference.MORE NEWS: DEP Says New York City Tap Water Might Smell, Taste Different Because Of Different Supply Systems
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey