PITTSBURGH -- Sometimes it looks like he's searching for an escape. Ask Pittsburgh Penguins forward Phil Kessel a question, and often he exhales. He looks over his shoulder, maybe for an exit, maybe for a Penguins staffer to break up the scrum. Then he answers in a way that suggests he just wants to get to the next question.
It's impossible not to feel like he'd rather be somewhere else.
But, occasionally, you see the side of Kessel that endears him so much to his teammates. Sometimes he lets out glimpses of that dry, sarcastic sense of humor that cracks up his teammates.
Kessel is a funny guy. You saw it with his one-liner on Twitter the night the Americans were knocked out of the World Cup, him not having made the team.
Just sitting around the house tonight w my dog. Felt like I should be doing something important, but couldn't put my finger on it.
— Phil Kessel (@PKessel81) September 21, 2016
You saw it during behind-the-scenes footage on HBO's "24/7," when cameras followed around Kessel's Toronto Maple Leafs and caught his response to a joke from then-Leafs coach Randy Carlyle, when he dryly responded, "Good one, Randy. Good one."
The tone, the timing -- it's perfect. Hearing Kessel say "Good one, Randy," is one the top-three contributions "24/7" gave the hockey world. It's not open for debate.
We'd all love to see more of that Kessel, but he doesn't care. He doesn't care what you think, what I think, anyone. That's what makes him Phil Kessel, it's part of what makes him great.
This week, it was suggested to Kessel that he appears to care more in the playoffs than in the regular season. Or at least his production reflects that.
He paused a beat, and in that dry Kessel tone, gave his response, flashing that humor for a moment.
"I don't know. I thought my regular season wasn't that bad, was it?" he answered, then smiled. "You have to always bring a little more and rise your game in the playoffs."
He's most certainly done that since joining the Penguins. The Penguins have opened a 2-0 series lead over Columbus in part because the Blue Jackets haven't been able to contain the opportunistic Penguins stars. Game 3 is Sunday in Columbus.
Kessel got it started in Game 1, and he and Malkin are as dangerous a duo as there is in this postseason, especially with Kessel raising his game.
"I think everyone's desperation level is higher," Crosby said. "He would fit in that category too, that he's more desperate, but I think everyone else is too. The way he can shoot the puck and the way he can create plays makes him more noticeable."
So does his production.
With a goal and an assist so far in this postseason, Kessel has brought his total up to 24 points in 26 playoff games with the Penguins. He has 45 points in 48 career playoff games, averaging 0.94 points per postseason game (his regular-season average is 0.78). Chicago Blackhawks superstar Patrick Kane, a comparable player and considered strong playoff performer, for instance goes from 1.02 points per game in regular season in his career to 0.98. Still good but rarely do these guys go up like Kessel. Or Kessel goes up to their level at playoff time.
Sure, his regular season was productive as he points out -- 23 goals and 47 assists in 82 games -- but he wasn't at a point per game.
"Phil has that ability to elevate his game to be at his best when the stakes are higher," said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. "He has the ability to change outcomes."
Credit goes to Sullivan and the way he's used Kessel since he took over the Penguins. He and Kessel have had many closed-door sessions debating how he wants the talented winger to play. They've found a level of communication that has worked for the two of them, something that wasn't always been the case with Kessel and past coaches.
"I have so much respect for his honesty," Sullivan said. "I'm not going to say we haven't had our heated conversations over the time I've been here. We have."
Sullivan wants Kessel to use his speed with and without the puck. He wants him using that world-class speed to get to areas of the ice where he can fully take advantage of his deceptive shot and high-end passing ability.
If Kessel is playing well, he has the puck a lot, and he has it because he's using his skating to create those opportunities.
"We think when he's active and he's moving his feet and he's getting to the areas he needs to get to demand the puck, he's at his very best," Sullivan said.
Penguins defenseman Ron Hainsey, who joined the team before the trade deadline, noticed that it's a departure from how Kessel was used in Toronto.
"They used to just kind of blindly throw pucks up his side when he'd be flying up the wall, and you'd have to deal with him going full tilt and trying to skate by you," Hainsey said. "They use him a little differently here."
But you can see how effective it is when he has the puck under control, especially on the power play. He's such a great passer that the Blue Jackets have to respect that pass across the slot. He's also very deceptive with his stick, freezing goaltenders just enough before getting that lighting-fast shot away. He scored his first goal of this postseason with the freeze move. Teammates laugh because they've seen Kessel goals where the goalie hardly moves as the puck flies by, fooled completely by Kessel's deception.
How do you defend against that?
"The biggest way to negate the threat is to not let them get on the power play," Foligno said. "Right now, he's feeling it on the power play."
That's the fine line the Blue Jackets have to walk. They're trying to play physical hockey, they want to wear down the Penguins with relentless hitting. But cross the line, and Kessel is waiting on the power play, where he's feeling it.
And at this time of year, he usually makes opposing teams pay. And if you're the Blue Jackets, there's nothing funny about that.