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Phil Kessel benched in Knights’ loss to Sabres

Updated December 21, 2022 - 10:49 am

Golden Knights coach Bruce Cassidy shortened his bench and stuck with his top guys Monday as the team tried to erase a third-period deficit against the Buffalo Sabres at T-Mobile Arena.

Defenseman Alex Pietrangelo (12:08) and captain Mark Stone (10:09) played more than half the frame. Right wing Jonathan Marchessault (9:43) came close.

But Phil Kessel, the Knights’ leader in career goals who became the 13th American player to score 400 goals earlier this season, hardly saw the ice.

He played two shifts totaling 40 seconds in the third period of the 3-2 loss. He was demoted from the first line to the third a period earlier after mishandling a breakout pass that led to Buffalo’s second goal.

The Knights are still searching for ways to help Kessel make an impact. The NHL’s all-time iron-man is on pace for 29 points, which would match his career low from his rookie year in Boston in 2006-07.

“At the end of the day, again, when you’re behind, you try something else,” coach Bruce Cassidy said.

Monday was an opportunity for Kessel to get going.

Cassidy put him with Stone and center Chandler Stephenson for the second consecutive game. It was a chance for Kessel to use his tremendous offensive talent with two of the Knights’ best players, even if he was playing on the left side rather than his natural spot on the right.

“Sometimes you just assume, well, a smart player will figure it out,” Cassidy said.

The group didn’t click. The trio was on the ice for three goals against at five-on-five in 14:11 over two games, according to the website Natural Stat Trick, before Cassidy broke it up. He said it was in part due to Kessel’s defensive work, because Stephenson and Stone are always going to play against some of their opponent’s top players.

“Whoever’s up there, be it Phil or anybody, has to respect that and play a 200-foot game,” Cassidy said.

The demotion continued a year-long trend for Kessel, who through the Knights declined an interview request after Tuesday’s practice.

He’s constantly rotated linemates as Cassidy has searched for the right combinations. Kessel’s centers alone this season include Jack Eichel, Nicolas Roy, Brett Howden, Michael Amadio and Jake Leschyshyn. He hasn’t been able to build chemistry with a consistent unit.

Kessel, in part because of that, is a team-worst minus-11 at five-on-five, according to Natural Stat Trick. Left wing Reilly Smith and defenseman Nic Hague are tied for second-worst mark on the Knights at minus-5.

The team wants to find Kessel a group that fits because he’s a beloved player in the locker room. His pursuit of Keith Yandle’s consecutive games streak, which he broke Oct. 25 in San Jose, helped galvanize the team. Kessel’s record is still going at 1,016 games and counting.

Kessel also scored 52 points only a season ago in what was considered a down year for him. The two-time Stanley Cup champion came into training camp looking to prove he had more to give.

The Knights haven’t found the best way for him to show that. He’s not the only one struggling during the team’s 1-6 slide at home, but any extra offense he could provide would be a huge boost for a short-handed club searching for ways to score.

“Margins are slimmer it seems lately for us when you’re not scoring,” Cassidy said. “Some of these mistakes, we were outscoring some of them and right now we’re not, so every one gets magnified.”

Contact Ben Gotz at bgotz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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