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Stanley Cup Final: New-look Phil Kessel thrives on his biggest stage

In his first Stanley Cup Final, Phil Kessel is a vision of happiness and production.

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If your exposure to Phil Kessel was built primarily on the time he spent with the Toronto Maple Leafs, you probably didn’t recognize this version of him. There he sat in his locker room stall after his Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning 2–1 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals to advance to the Stanley Cup Final, Kessel’s first.

He wore a thick beard, the kind of playoff foliage that he rarely had a chance to grow during his first nine seasons in the NHL, seeing the postseason just three times with the Boston Bruins and Maple Leafs.

But even the beard couldn’t hide the most distinct feature of the Kessel who sat talking to reporters: his giant, beaming smile.

No, the image many still have of him is that of the talented but oft-disgruntled winger displaying some form of frustration, perhaps with his head buried on the bench after another shift.

Throughout his time in Toronto, it sure looked like his ever playing in the Stanley Cup Final would be a career longshot. But now Kessel has an opportunity not just to prove the doubters wrong but to cement his legacy as an elite, dependable scorer when it matters most: in the playoffs.

Penguins coach praises Kessel

“I don’t think you could ever dream about that,” Kessel said after winning the finale of the Eastern finals. “Obviously you’d never expect this.”

While many foresaw plus-sized production when he came to Pittsburgh in a trade after the 2014-15 season, but Kessel’s 59 points fell short of expectations. Yet they were directly in line with his career 82-game season average.

His postseason production should come as no surprise, either. He came in to the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs with 20 points in 21 career postseason games, and has added another 18 points in 18 contests, combining with Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino to form the vaunted HBK line.

Alongside his new linemates, Kessel has been beaming. It's a bit of a strange smile, if only because his sheer enjoyment at this level of play has become so evident after so many sullen years, as has his ability to produce.

“This is an incredible moment in my career, in my life,” he said.

Sidney Crosby's legacy in Stanley Cup Final spotlight

​This is the Phil Kessel we only saw glimpses of during the Maple Leafs’ seven-game first-round series in 2013. He was arguably Toronto’s best player during that matchup with the Bruins and it’s easy enough to make a pretty strong argument that he’s been Pittsburgh’s best player throughout these playoffs as well. Penguins captain and uber-forward Sidney Crosby has garnered headlines for his three game-winning goals, in addition to the fact that he remains the face of the franchise. It also didn't hurt Crosby's case that he had possibly his best game of the playoffs in the decisive Game 7 win. But Kessel’s 2.46 even-strength points per 60 minutes is right up there with some of his best regular season totals. Despite the small sample size from this tournament, as the Penguins’ leading scorer through three rounds, he deserves Conn Smythe consideration.

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Heading into the final against the San Jose Sharks, there’s little evidence to suggest that he’ll stop scoring and stop smiling. After his snub by Team USA, which declined to add him to its World Cup of Hockey roster on Friday, Kessel will have all the more reason, and opportunity, to prove his doubters wrong. In a results-driven league, very little is standing in his way as he attempts to shake off his lost time in Toronto. The snub is a questionable one, especially in light of his recent play in the playoffs. Just as Kessel has had the opportunity to flourish in Pittsburgh by not having to be “The Guy” and bear the weight of expectations for the team, so too would his oft-singular and deadly talents have found a home on an otherwise underwhelming Team USA roster.

Kessel has proved to be a difficult player to defend and the Sharks will undoubtedly have their hands full. Regardless of how the Penguins fare, he has shown that he’s at home when the stakes are at their highest.