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Drive to the Net: What makes Kessel’s shot so ‘different?’

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Phil Kessel slams a pass from Sidney Crosby behind the Lightning's Peter Budaj. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Phil Kessel's shot "comes off his stick a little different," as Mike Sullivan has recited countless times, and others around the NHL have echoed.

Not many attempt to elaborate, though.

Not even the artist himself.

"I don't know. I'm just playing," Kessel was saying after his two goals and two primary assists led the Penguins past the Lightning, 5-2, Saturday night at PPG Paints Arena. "Nothing new. Same old."

OK, so he was being queried about his generally excellent play since pretty much the opening draw of October: He's got seven goals in his past nine games, at least one point in 19 of his 25 games, and, hey, there he is cracking the NHL's top five scorers with these four points:

But come on, you didn't think he'd be the one to explain anything deeply, right?

Never mind something as cosmic in scope as that shot.

Let's first take a look at his beauty of a breakaway goal that put his team up by four at 2:22 of the second period:

As a prelude, a tap of the left-handed stick to Riley Sheahan, the emergency second-line center, for smartly pausing to make sure he'd feed Kessel in full stride behind the last line of the Tampa Bay defense -- a forward, no less, in Vladislav Namestnikov -- to keep the breakaway as clean as could be. Others might have opted for flipping and hoping. Sheahan took the direct route and ensured the puck wouldn't fall prey to possible choppy ice by sliding it softly.

"A great pass," Kessel called it when I brought it up.

Next comes the fun part. And it's fun mostly because of the guessing game. Even the best of the best breakaway artists in the NHL have one fallback move, if not an outright singular move. We've seen, for example, Sidney Crosby go five-hole time and time again, often to a fault.

Kessel, this season alone, has buried breakaways -- full or partial -- through the five-hole, to the low blocker side, to the glove side and, now to the high blocker side over Peter Budaj.

Remember that classic Mats Sundin Nike commercial?

Yeah, kind of like that.

So pity poor Budaj as Kessel crosses the blue line with a full head of steam and a full menu of options. Because it's not just that he can plant his flag any place he pleases on the goaltending map, but also that he can just as easily snipe from a reasonably far distance.

Taking this a step further, at least Budaj didn't have to deal with the additional threat Kessel poses with his passing, keeping any goaltender that much more on edge, as happened when he took a tour of the Tampa Bay zone to set up this Sidney Crosby power-play tap-in late in the first:

Can't respect the shot if you don't respect the pass.

Anyway, back to the breakaway: Kessel blazes up the right side, chin up, blade back and just ... man, he just annihilated it, and it's worth another angle:

As Steve Mears, the new play-by-play man, aptly shouted afterward from the TV booth behind me, "You cannot teach that!"

You really can't. Which is why it's fair to wonder, even after watching Kessel in the NHL and Olympic competition for more than a decade, how it happens.

Of course I asked ...

But for an answer longer than a deep breath, I took a stroll down the press box to find Colby Armstrong, one-time NHL right winger, former Kessel teammate in Toronto and current TV commentator for AT&T SportsNet, because he relates hockey's most intricate nuances as well as anyone I've known. And upon giving it some thought, he came up with three key facets:

1. That whippy stick.

You knew this would be first, but you might not have known why.

"I used to try his stick myself, and I couldn't even use it in warmups," Armstrong said. "The thing's just got so much give, so much action. So it gives him all that torque, all that extra zip. But I also think it makes it tougher for goalies to read."

By that, Armstrong clarified further, the puck stays affixed to the blade longer than for a conventional wrist shot, which has more of a one-and-done action.

"Because it's there long, I think maybe it's a tougher read for the goalie since it's such a different look."

2. That weird leg-lift.

Remember how Mark Messier and Mark Recchi would blaze down the right side with those left-handed shots, then lift their legs methodically to get goaltenders leaning before finding the far post?

Well, Kessel does ... who knows what that is?

"Phil shoots off his right foot, but it's never long after he's been on his left," Armstrong said. "The goalie has no way to time or predict that. I've seen where he shoots while he's actually transitioning from one leg to the other."

Like mid-air?

"Like mid-air! He's on his way over to that right leg, and he's not even all the way on it, and he lets the puck go. It's almost like it's a hop."

Hm. Check out this screen-freeze for the completed 'hop:'

3. That shot.

"You're born with that," Armstrong said with a shrug. "Honestly, I can't even imagine how he came to have all those different moving parts ... but it works. Those wrists, everything he puts into it ... it works."

Sullivan had plenty to say about the goal, but not before palpably embracing a question about whether this is broadly the best regular-season work the Penguins have seen from Kessel.

"Yes," he quickly came back before multiplying, "Yes. Hands down. And I give Phil so much credit. He came into camp in great shape. He worked hard in camp. His daily habits, I think, are so good right now. And I think it's translated into the game situations."

Sullivan paused and raised his eyebrows.

"He's such an elite player. He's so dangerous when he has the puck. He shoots the puck ..."

Another pause. Would he say it again?

" ... differently than most."

There it was.

"That goal he scored in the top corner, that's a goal-scorer's goal."

Sullivan then continued: "I think this is the best stretch of hockey he's played for us, maybe if you set aside some of the playoff runs. I think he's been really receptive to the coaching staff in trying to help him play the game a certain way. Phil's made a lot of subtle adjustments to his game because the game itself has evolved. Especially at even strength. He's in the puck battles. He's coming across the ice. He's protecting pucks down low."

A final pause.

"He's just an elite player. I don't know how else to say it. He has the ability to be a difference-maker."

With that very different shot.

MATT SUNDAY GALLERY

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Penguins vs. Lightning, PPG Paints Arena, Nov. 25, 2017 - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

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