PITTSBURGH - Phil Kessel drank in the moment in the most Phil Kessel way. He tried to avoid it.
Yet as the standing ovation the Arizona Coyotes forward received in his return to Pittsburgh wore on Friday night, the mercurial forward who helped the Penguins to a pair of Stanley Cups couldn't escape it even as he tried to hide on the bench. So Kessel finally caved, skating onto the ice and bashfully raising his stick as a show of respect to the sellout crowd.
“You know me, I’m not the biggest for that,” Kessel said. “But like I said, it was nice of them to do that. I appreciate it."
Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry wasn't so hospitable, turning aside all 33 shots he faced — including three from Kessel — to lift Pittsburgh to a 2-0 victory. Jarry's second straight shutout and fifth victory in his last six starts did little to dampen a potentially messy goalie controversy, though coach Mike Sullivan demurred when asked if Jarry is making a compelling case to supplant struggling veteran Matt Murray as Pittsburgh's No. 1 starter.
“We're trying to make decisions to win games in the short run and try and have the big picture in mind," Sullivan said. "Tristan's this last handful of starts, he's been great."
Jarry needed to be to hand the Coyotes just their fourth regulation road loss of the season. His best stop came late in the third period with the Penguins on the penalty kill nursing a one-goal lead. Arizona's Clayton Keller was in perfect position at the right post to pounce on a rebound and had an open net to shoot at before Jarry got just enough of it to send the puck sailing over the crossbar.
Jarry likened the save to luck, but his teammates aren't quite so sure.
“Jarry had a huge night for us,” Pittsburgh defenceman Justin Schultz said. “Sometimes you've got to win like that.”
Evgeni Malkin's seventh goal of the season broke a scoreless tie 7:13 into the third period to put the Penguins in front. Brandon Tanev chipped in an empty netter with two seconds remaining as the Penguins won their fifth straight meeting with the Coyotes. Antti Raanta finished with 24 saves but couldn't quite match Jarry, who became the first Pittsburgh goaltender to post shutouts in consecutive games since Marc-Andre Fleury in February, 2015.
“Sometimes you have to tip your cap," Keller said. "Thought we played well as team, but their goalie was the difference tonight.”
Kessel had 110 goals and 193 assists in four highly productive seasons with the Penguins. His lethal shot and underrated passing played a vital role in Pittsburgh's resurgence, and his rumpled persona off the ice made the characteristically reticent Kessel a fan favourite.
The marriage, however, ended in June when the Penguins sent him to Arizona for centre Alex Galchenyuk following a decidedly blah 2018-19 in which Kessel's often inattentive defence drew Sullivan's ire. The move reunited Kessel with former Penguins assistant Rich Tocchet, who developed a reputation as a “Phil Whisperer" for the bond the two developed before Tocchet left to take the head coaching job with the Coyotes in June, 2017.
Kessel's arrival in the desert sent a message that Arizona was serious about ending a seven-year playoff drought. The Coyotes are off to their best start in nearly 30 years, and Kessel appears to be regaining his scoring touch. He found the net twice in a win over Philadelphia on Thursday and was all over the ice while playing in his 804th consecutive game just 24 hours later, perhaps energized by the video tribute the Penguins put together to mark his return.
“Phil got a little teary eyed,” Tocchet said. “He had some chances, too. Right after that, he had a couple of chances. It would’ve been nice for him to score.”
Jarry, however, wasn't having it, though Raanta matched Jarry save for save for much of the night. The Penguins' best chance through the first 45 minutes came during an extended two-man advantage in the second period. They came up empty when Raanta somehow got his paddle on a rebound by Bryan Rust from just outside the crease.
Raanta, however, wasn't so lucky in the third period. The Penguins won a draw in the Arizona zone, and Jake Guentzel fired off a snapshot that deflected off a skate to the end boards, where it then ricocheted off Raanta's right skate right to Malkin. Malkin steered it between Raanta's legs.
Jarry's play made sure it was enough give Pittsburgh its sixth straight home victory over the Coyotes.
NOTES: Arizona scratched Fs Michael Chaput and Barrett Hayton and D Aaron Ness. Pittsburgh scratched F Joseph Blandisi and D Juuso Riikola. ... The Coyotes went 0 for 5 on the power play. The Penguins were 0 for 2.
Coyotes: Finish up their four-game road trip on Sunday in Chicago.
Penguins: Visit Detroit on Saturday to face the Red Wings.
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