Phil Kessel had to go through a lot to have his moment in the sun.
Nearly a year after being dealt by the Toronto Maple Leafs to Pittsburgh, oft criticized forward capped off his tumultuous year by leading the Penguins in playoff scoring and drinking out of the best trophy in pro sports.
"It's been a special year," Kessel told TSN after the Penguins were crowned Sunday night. "You know, obviously (there has been) a lot of change in my life, and it's the best year of my life."
"Phil the Thrill" finished the playoffs with 10 goals and 12 assists in 24 games, including a goal and three assists in the final. The sniper now has 23 goals and 43 points in 46 career spring games.
Like most of the Penguins' players, Kessel gave due credit to Mike Sullivan for turning Pittsburgh's season around.
"You know, I think towards December (and) January, I think we started to kind of turn a corner as a team," Kessel said. "You know, Sully came in, and we kind of found our identity, found the way we had to play as a group. And you know this is a special group here.
"I think we believed in each other, we played for each other. We knew we had a solid team ... we always believed we had a chance to win."
After being traded to Pittsburgh last July 1, many believed Kessel would be poised for a career year, playing with the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. As it turns out, he had what many considered to be a down year, having registered only 26 goals in 82 games. His 59 points were his lowest in a non-lockout season since 2009-10, his first in Toronto, when he only played 70 games.
Redemption, though, was found in the playoffs, where Kessel and his linemates Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin tore up the opposition. The magic was supposed to happen with Sid and Geno, not Bonino and Hagelin, but the "HBK" line, as it came to be known, was crucial to the Penguins' Stanley Cup title. Pittsburgh doesn't win without its contributions.
"It just clicked," Kessel said of his line.
It sure did, and Kessel's a Stanley Cup champion, much to the dismay of his many critics.