Kessel talks about season, playoffs

Chris Lempesis

Freshmen in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association usually go through an extensive, perhaps seasonlong, learning curve as they try to adapt to playing in arguably the nation’s toughest conference.

Phil Kessel, however, has been forcing the other WCHA teams to adapt to him all season long.

Billed before the season as maybe the greatest American-born hockey prospect ever, the Minnesota’s men’s hockey forward is turning in an outstanding freshman season, recording 14 goals and 28 assists (42 points). His points total is second on the Gophers only to junior forward Ryan Potulny, and Potulny is considered perhaps the front-runner for the Hobey Baker Award, given to the best collegiate hockey player.

Kessel’s points total also puts him second in the nation in freshman scoring, behind Sacred Heart’s Bear Trapp (16-27-43) and first in WCHA freshman scoring.

And there have been plenty of highlights along the way, from Kessel scoring his first collegiate goal on a penalty shot at home against Minnesota State to his already infamous post goal celebration in a Minnesota win at Wisconsin during his homecoming weekend.

“He’s certainly met the expectations that I thought he would do during the course of this season,” coach Don Lucia said. “Now, if you asked him, he probably thinks he should be doing better, but he’s had a terrific freshman year and is a big reason why we were able to win the WCHA regular-season title.”

The Daily did ask Kessel about that, and a number of other topics – including the hype, his NHL prospects and, yes, the celebration in Madison – during a one-on-one interview.

Talk a little bit about the season. How do you feel you performed during the regular season?

I think I’ve had an OK season. It’s not what I planned on having, but, you know, that’s how it goes. Our team is winning and that’s the main thing.

What’s surprised you the most about the WCHA this season?

I don’t really know, you know. I guess the teams. They have some good teams out there and they play well, and anybody can beat anyone in the league.

Talk a little about that goal you scored at Wisconsin with the celebration. Do you feel bad about that at all in hindsight?

You know, maybe I shouldn’t have done it. But, you know, it was just a reaction and it happened and you know, whatever.

Anybody from back home give you grief about that at all?

Nope. A lot of people liked it. All the guys here (liked it).

There was a lot of pressure on you, obviously, coming into the season. How tough was that during the first half of the season? Your coach said he noticed it getting to you a little bit.

It wasn’t as tough as people thought. I just come in here and play hockey. That’s what I like to do and hopefully things work out in the end.

Was that something you even worried about, all the hype on you and everything? Does that get to you at all?

No, it doesn’t get to me. I don’t worry about it. It happens, I just deal with it.

Your coach said he noticed you were a lot more relaxed when you came back from the World Junior Championships (in December in Vancouver, British Columbia). Did anything happen out there in Vancouver that led you to maybe feel a bit less pressure in the second half?

No, not really. I went out there and played and tried to get a medal for the team, and we played well out there. But we just couldn’t get it done and, you know, I just came back here, ready to play and finish the year off.

What was that experience like for you out in Vancouver?

It was a great experience. I mean, you play with great players, like (Michigan defenseman) Jack Johnson and (Washington Capitals’ prospect) Chris Bourque. Players that play in the AHL, players that are gonna play in the NHL. So, it was nice.

Are you excited at this point, now that finally the playoffs are starting? This is why you came to Minnesota, right? For these championship runs?

Yeah, I mean, I’m excited. It’s playoff time. Yeah, you come here, you have a good team, and you try to get as far as you can go.

What goals do you have for yourself, personally, now, as the playoffs start?

I just think we win as a team. Go out there, play my game and hopefully our team does well.

You’ve been projected as one of the top two, maybe the No. 1, pick in the NHL Draft (in June). Is that something you’ve even looked at, at this point?

No, you don’t think about it. You just go about your business. Play the game you play.

That’s got to be pretty cool to hear though. You’ve heard about that, right?

Well, yeah, I’ve heard about it. But I don’t really think about.

So have you even looked at the possibility that this might be your last season here?

No, you know. I’ll play it by ear. See how everything goes and we’ll see how it works out.

When do you think that you would make the decision on that? Because you would have to at some point.

I have no idea. When the time comes, if there’s a time, then you gotta make that decision.