Kovacevic: Kessel’s not optional, Steelers’ signings, Pirates’ infield


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Phil Kessel, Sunday night at PPG Paints Arena. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

NEW YORK -- Old-school Tuesday Takes before a business meeting this morning in Manhattan ...

• The way Phil Kessel strode out of PPG Paints Arena's lower concourse late Sunday night -- all alone, eyes locked forward and frighteningly wide, one purposeful step after another -- he'd have steamrollered a Zamboni had anyone been dumb enough to drive one in his path.

Good. Bring that to the ice, too.

Instead of this ...

Look, bad passes happen. Physical mistakes happen. I get it.

I also get that Kessel's beloved in Pittsburgh. He's been adopted as one of us, the goal-scoring superstar who also looks like he could just as easily be buying everyone a round of Miller Lite at the end of the bar. Even amid that awful 2-1 overtime loss to the Flyers, one in which he repeatedly turned the puck over and once killed his own power play with a silly slashing minor, the crowd cheered in the third period during one break when he was shown on the big video board.

He's Phil. Everyone loves Phil.

Well, maybe it's time for some tougher love.

Because the last time Kessel significantly contributed to the Penguins taking two points was way back on Jan. 30 in that stirring 4-2 victory over the visiting, league-leading Lightning. He had a goal and an assist that night, he was creating all over the place, and he pretty much puppeteered the power play.

He was Phil.

In 23 games since then, he's got three goals and 15 assists. All three goals and half of the 18 points have come on the power play. At five-on-five, he's failed to finish any of his 41 shots in that span, he's committed six minor penalties, he's drawn only two, and he's posted a 47.84 Corsi For percentage, second-lowest among the Penguins' forwards in that span.

Now Evgeni Malkin's out, Sidney Crosby can only be counted on so much, Kris Letang's still somewhere in the void, and the other of Mike Sullivan's stars needs to do what he's done so often in the past -- including earlier this very season -- and step up. Sharpen up. Shoot the puck. Swoop in for rebounds. And for crying out loud, bear down on the power play as if the coach won't keep giving you chance after chance after chance.

Be that Phil again. Be the one who might as well have been team MVP in 2017-18. Tonight in Raleigh would be a fine time to resume.

Maybe that's what those wide eyes were envisioning.

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