Courtesy of Hertz

Drive to the Net: The block heard ’round the rink


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Phil Kessel beats the Ducks' Jacob Carlsson and John Gibson Friday night in Anaheim, Calif. - AP

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Phil Kessel hasn't had much in the way of five-on-five support from his linemates of late, so it'd be complete conjecture to suggest he emerged from the second intermission Friday night hellbent on doing it all himself.

Not that any such concern will stop this column from proceeding.

Because that sure was how it looked from the puck's drop for the third period until he put together this virtuoso ...

... for the eventual winner in the Penguins' vibrant 7-4 victory over the Ducks at the Honda Center.

Everything about this is excellent. The hard one-man forecheck forces a turnover when Anaheim's defenseman, Jacob Larsson, tries a backhand bank up the boards, rather than the safer path behind his goal. Kessel claims the puck on his backhand, wheels to his forehand with an effortless glide to his skates, doesn't appear to lose any forward momentum, flicks one shot on John Gibson, then outmuscles Larsson for the rebound to bank the second shot off the far post and in.

I mean ...

Yeah, what Tanner Pearson said.

So, for a feature called Drive to the Net, one of the winter's most wonderful drives to the net would be a no-brainer to draw the headline.


Because, on a night of various unfortunate occurrences even when things would go well for the visitors, this happened shortly after Kessel's goal had finally brought their first lead, 5-4:

That was with 6:58 left. And that was Garrett Wilson, this season's I-80 tour guide between Wilkes-Barre and Pittsburgh, putting himself in the line of fire of Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf, owner of one of the NHL's hardest shots. With Matt Murray screened, there's no telling what happens if he doesn't do that.

And I'm here to tell you, in this hockey culture, the one nurtured by Mike Sullivan, what Kessel did rates about an 8 on a scale of 1-10, and what Wilson did is ... oh, an 11.

"Huge. So huge," Murray would tell me. "What a huge block for our team."

Sidney Crosby went out of his way to find Wilson in the locker room to express his appreciation.

And that's just off the ice. Right when it happened, Murray recalled shouting encouragement, "That's it, Willie! Yeah, Willie!" The bench leaped to its collective feet and shouted from that direction, as well.

Among those ecstatic over there was the head coach himself, as I'd confirm:

Really, we're talking about an evening-long event in which a three-goal deficit was overcome, in which Jake Guentzel had a hat trick, Evgeni Malkin had four points, Pearson had two goals, and Kessel brushstroked a Picasso, and that man's expression up there speaks volumes about what he just might have valued most.

It's not a flaw. He recognizes his stars, treats them as such, works to maximize them. But at the end of the day, he's the old fourth-liner who put forth every bead of sweat to preserve his next NHL paycheck, who had to weigh every block against what it could mean to losing his health and his place in the system ... and there's no way this doesn't come with that extra sappiness.

Wilson doesn't just get this, he lives it.

He's 27, he's scattered 48 NHL games over eight professional seasons, mostly in the AHL and, early on, the ECHL. He isn't all that big, at 6-2, 198, but he fights. He isn't all that fast or skilled, but he has to score at a level to match his grit to find work in the minors. And on those occasions he's made it to the show, he's totaled all of two assists to tabulate on the back of the next Upper Deck set.

I missed him in the locker room. Saw him once, but that's when he was with Crosby, and I didn't want to interrupt.

But I also wanted to wait him out. So I did, outside the room in the hall where he'd have to pass on the way to the team bus. When that happened about 20 minutes later, I had to wait yet a little longer as teammates kept stopping him for praise.

Oh, and he had a cut on his forehead. Couldn't even cite how he got it.

"Anytime you risk your body for the team, the boys really appreciate it," Wilson would tell me. "It can really bring momentum to a team, when you get a big block like that. It's part of my game. I know that. I've got to do the little things like that to stick around here. I'm willing to get in the lanes, and I'm lucky that one hit me."

Wait, lucky?

That was Getzlaf off the unprotected side of the skate, I reminded him. I could actually hear the thud of the block all the way up in the press box at high altitude.

"It didn't get through. That's lucky."

So what could he hear, I wondered. Could he hear Murray's encouragement?

"Oh, yeah, for sure. I heard him. I could hear all the yelling from the bench, everything."

Even in the moment?

"Definitely. It almost makes it feel better for a second."

Big smile.

He had to go after that. The bus' engine was humming and, besides, he had a couple friends who hoped to get a picture with Crosby. The captain was all too happy to oblige.

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