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Sullivan wants Kessel to have a shoot first mindset

Ottawa Senators v Pittsburgh Penguins - Game Seven

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 25: Phil Kessel #81 of the Pittsburgh Penguins controls the puck in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Ottawa Senators at PPG Paints Arena on May 25, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

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Since arriving in Pittsburgh before the 2015-16 season Phil Kessel has proven to be an important piece to the Penguins’ puzzle. He hasn’t been the 35-or 40-goal scorer that he was expected to be upon his arrival, he has still been an extremely productive player and especially in the playoffs where he has always been at his best.

But while the production is there once again this postseason (he has 20 points in 22 games, good enough for third best in the league) he hasn’t looked quite as dominant as he did a year ago, and he has even faced some pretty harsh criticism for his play from some in the Pittsburgh media.

He has also had his ice-time drop a bit over the past couple of weeks, logging less than 16 minutes of ice-time in five of his past seven games, nearly two minutes off of his postseason average the past two years.

Held without a goal in Saturday’s Game 3 loss to Nashville, Kessel has now gone five games without a goal and has just one in his past seven. Granted, that really isn’t that huge of a slump because even the elite players run into dry spells when it comes to putting the puck in the net. Big picture, five games really isn’t that long of a slump.

Even so, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan was asked on Saturday night if he sees anything in Kessel’s game that indicates if he might be on the verge of breaking out of that mini-slump and if Kessel is playing with confidence.

“Well, he’s an elite shooter,” said Sullivan. “He can score goals. We always try to encourage him to shoot the puck more because he has one of the best shots in the game, we believe. He had a couple looks tonight. He had a breakaway late in the game.

“I think Phil is a guy, if one goes in for him, it certainly gives him a boost of confidence. We’re trying to encourage him to shoot the puck and think shot first. I think, you know, he’s certainly at his best when he’s in that mindset.”

And that starts to drill down to where some of the concern might be coming from. He’s not getting shots at the same rate as he has in the past, something that started even during the regular season when he averaged just 2.79 shots on goal per game. That was his lowest total since his second year in the league. In the playoffs, he is averaging 2.86 after averaging more than four in the playoffs a year ago. It’s almost as if he made an effort this season to become more of a playmaker (and he has always been an underrated passer) instead of taking full advantage of his opportunities to use his elite shot.

Kessel is always going to be an interesting case, and this postseason is no different. He is paid to score goals because that is what he does best, and given his style of play (not physical, considered “one dimensional”) he is going to face criticism when he isn’t doing that, even if the overall production is still there.