Phil Kessel's passion play fires up fellow Penguins -- and his motive is more selfless than it seems

PITTSBURGH -- To fully comprehend why it was perfectly OK that Pittsburgh Penguins forward Phil Kessel was yelling at teammates, at himself, at anyone who would listen after he returned to the bench after each shift in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, you need to understand his motives.

Kessel, as much as anybody, knows how he can help his team. He can change the course of the game when the puck is on his stick along the half-wall on the power play. He has a shot that can alter the outcome of a series in the blink of an eye, as he did with his game-winning goal in the third period against the Ottawa Senators on Monday that evened their series at one win each.

He's not going to win games with his backchecking. He's not going to change the outcome of a series with a monster hit. But Kessel has an offensive skill set few people in the world can match, and he needs the puck to deploy it.

It's not because he selfishly wants to pad his stats or make it about himself. It's because he knows that's the way he can best impact a game.

"Phil's [thought] is that if he's not contributing offensively and the team is not winning the game, the team is being cheated of his abilities. And I don't say that in a bad way," said Scott Gordon, who was part of the Toronto Maple Leafs' staff that coached Kessel for three years. "Phil, in his own way, is a really proud guy. I think that, if he's not able to help the team with getting points, maybe he feels like he doesn't make a contribution."

And he's clearly not afraid to express that opinion.

Kessel's emotional outbursts on the bench are nothing new. Those who have coached him or played with him almost expect to see him get heated during the course of a game.

"I'm sure he yelled at me at one point [during Game 2]. He wanted the puck back," said Penguins defenseman Ron Hainsey. "I think. You can't hear him."

And those who know him well probably reacted the same way as teammate Chris Kunitz did when caught on camera sitting next to Kessel on the bench during one of his outbursts -- with a laugh.

It's just Phil being Phil.

"He's a competitive guy," Kunitz said after the win. "He wants the puck at all times. ... He and [Penguins assistant coach Rick Tocchet] have this little spitfire relationship, where they talk back to each other about plays that go on on the ice. It works well. It gets [Kessel] into the game. It gets him to see different areas of the ice. That's one of the [reasons] Phil wants the puck. That's why he's an elite player."

When Gordon saw replays of the heated exchange between Kessel and Penguins center Evgeni Malkin, he immediately assumed it centered on Kessel not getting the puck on the power play. He has witnessed enough of those exchanges and understands exactly why Kessel might be upset when he's not seeing the puck enough on the power play, especially when the Penguins are struggling with the extra skater, as they have in this series. The Penguins' power play has gone 0-for-6 against Ottawa.

"I know when Phil doesn't get the puck on the half-wall on the power play, he gets pretty steamed," Gordon said. "The power play goes through him and nobody else."

But when you're on a team that also includes Sidney Crosby and Malkin and other players who have egos, it leads to differences of opinion. Their healthy egos are part of what makes each of those players great. They believe they can affect a game. They want to make a difference. They have taken turns rising to the occasion this postseason, which is the main reason the Penguins have been able to advance this far even while being hamstrung by multiple injuries.

Those heated moments in Game 2 also gave us a revealing glimpse into how Penguins coach Mike Sullivan runs the team. He wants those players engaged. He likes it when his guys have it out, even if they're caught on camera.

If things get too heated, he's the one who steps in and calms them down. But he'd much prefer that his players be intense and passionate on the bench than be a group of guys who mechanically go through the motions like a bunch of robots.

"We encourage it because I think it helps our game," Sullivan said. "I think progress is made. So we call it a man's argument. That's the way it is. I think lines go back and forth and talk to one another. I think it brings juice to the bench."

Perhaps the story would have been different if Pittsburgh had lost Game 2. Maybe there would be concern about the Penguins losing their cool on the bench or becoming unraveled if, say, Senators forward Bobby Ryan had scored the goal -- as he did in overtime of Game 1 -- instead of Kessel. But that's not what happened. Kessel gets the benefit of the doubt because he got testy on the bench and then backed it up at the most important time with his first goal of the series.

It shouldn't be lost on anyone that the only two Pittsburgh players to break through offensively against the Senators so far have been Kessel and Malkin, two of the most emotional players on the ice in Game 2.

This also might have been Crosby's best game in a while, even if his contributions weren't reflected in the box score. The Penguins' stars are fired up, and they're revealing that passion for all to see. For Sullivan, the only drawback might be that the drama is playing out in public view.

"You guys have too many cameras on the bench," he said.