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Coyotes’ Phil Kessel visits former team after 2-goal night, in 1st place

Phil Kessel #81 of the Arizona Coyotes skates with the puck during the NHL game against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Gila River Arena on November 21, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. The Maple Leafs defeated the Coyotes 3-1. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Arizona Coyotes’ biggest offseason acquisition hasn’t been that thus far. It’s not for lack of effort for Phil Kessel, though.

As Carl Soderberg has eight goals and 16 points already this year, Kessel was on pace for just 11 goals all season before he scored two goals on Thursday night at the Philadelphia Flyers. He now has six goals and 17 points this season. Maybe it’s a turning point.

“Well he’s starting to get a little healthy, and he’s had a few practices under his belt,” head coach Rick Tocchet said after Thursday’s game, referring to a groin injury for Kessel, which had been reported by The Athletic’s Craig Morgan.

“He knows he’s got to get out there and practice — he feels better that way. That power play breakout was really nice — that was a nice play by [Clayton] Keller and him. He’s got to stick with it.”

He lit the lamp once in the first period on an assist from Keller and again with an empty-netter in the third period on Thursday night as the Arizona Coyotes won 3-1 and moved into first place in the Pacific Division. Up next: Kessel’s former team, the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“Big piece of his heart’s been here. He’s won two Stanley Cups,” Tocchet told reporters on Friday. “Fans love him, the whole organization. It was a good thing. I’m excited for him, because it’s a deserved thing to come back and get recognized and move on and play the game.”

Tocchet knows well. He was an assistant coach in Pittsburgh while Kessel played there, and the two formed a good relationship. Tocchet told a story to Barstool Sports’ Spittin’ Chiclets podcast over the summer that the two once joked around before a Game 7 in a playoff series — and that led to a bet that Tocchet couldn’t do 15 chin-ups in his suit. He did, and Kessel paid up.

“He just brought a different personality to the room,” Tocchet said Friday. “Talking to [Sidney Crosby] when he first got here and when he left, he just brought a different vibe in that room. This game is very intense, and like [Penguins coach] Mike Sullivan says, it’s not a warm and fuzzy type of game. But Phil would bring that element that kind of kept guys calm sometimes. Those personality guys are hard to find.”

The Coyotes traded Alex Galchenyuk and defensive prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph to the Penguins this summer to get Kessel. Kessel spent the last four years in Pittsburgh, scoring 110 goals and 193 assists for 303 points in 328 games. He’s looking to stay hot as he enters familiar territory.

His team, too, needs a win to remain in first place. A loss and an Edmonton Oilers win over the Kings would give Edmonton back its top spot in the Pacific Division Friday night.


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