Kessel's return highlights Coyotes' visit to Penguins

Regardless of any other storylines when the Arizona Coyotes visit the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday, the biggest is the return of sniper Phil Kessel to PPG Paints Arena.

Kessel, 32, spent four seasons with the Penguins, winning two Stanley Cups, racking up 110 goals and 303 points, and becoming something of a quirky fan favorite and locker-room comedic teddy bear.

Pittsburgh traded him to the Coyotes this past offseason.

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"He was a big part of our two championships. It'll be a tough matchup," Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz said. "He's still a great player in this league. He can score at any time out there. It'll be a fun matchup."

Kessel tailed off some late in his time with Pittsburgh, scoring six goals over his last 32 games. That included a 16-game goal drought, and he netted just one goal last spring in the first round of the playoffs, when the New York Islanders swept the Penguins.

That doesn't make him less dangerous to plan against, Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said.

"He's a great player," Sullivan said. "He's very opportunistic. I think he has an ability to get behind the defense corps. He has an ability to anticipate and jump on the offense when the puck's up for grabs. He's one of those players that you have to be aware when he's on the ice."

The Penguins no doubt will have a tribute video prepared to show during one of the game's early breaks. It's likely that the players left over from Kessel's time in Pittsburgh will celebrate right along with the fans.

"He's fun to have in the locker room," Schultz said. "We sure miss him."

Kessel had two power-play goals Thursday in the Coyotes' 3-1 win at Philadelphia, which boosted them to the top of the Pacific Division. They are 8-3-2 in their past 13 games.

That gave Kessel six goals and 17 points in 30 games, which for him constitutes a slow start.

He has declined to speak publicly about the trip back to Pittsburgh until after the game, but Arizona coach Rick Tocchet, who worked closely with Kessel as a Penguins assistant, expects the return to be impactful for the winger.

"Well, knowing Phil like I do, I know he's going to downplay the whole thing," Tocchet told The Athletic. "That's just Phil. But you know what? He's going to get emotional. Think about it. Pittsburgh played a very, very big role in his life for four years. He loves that place so much. It's going to be a very big deal for him on Friday."

The Penguins got winger Alex Galchenyuk and prospect Pierre Oliver-Joseph in return for Kessel. Galchenyuk has been something of a disappointment thus far, with just two goals despite having a 30-goal season on his resume.

The Penguins have stacked together a nine-game home point streak (7-0-2) despite a wicked run of injuries. Team captain Sidney Crosby (sports hernia surgery) is among those won't get the chance to play against Kessel.

Two injured players -- Schultz and top-line winger Bryan Rust -- practiced with full contact and no restrictions Thursday and seem likely to return Friday, just in time to face Kessel.

"It's definitely going to be fun," Rust said. "It's going to be fun to see him again, but it's definitely going to be weird to have him not be in the black and gold."

--Field Level Media

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