EAST LANSING, Mich. ? In the wake of this past week's College Hockey Showcase, Minnesota and Wisconsin have cemented their series this weekend as the must-see matchup of the first half. With the teams combining for a 3-0-1 record at then-ranked No. 1 Michigan and No. 18 Michigan State, several new faces emerged as leaders while a couple of familiar ones solidified themselves as some of the best in the game. One, however, rose above the rest.
Phil Kessel shook off the pressure of playing back in Ann Arbor in his matchup with former teammate and fellow phenom Jack Johnson. Michigan's Johnson and Andrew Cogliano, both first round picks in the NHL draft, may be the closest thing to peers that Kessel has in college hockey.
Minnesota's young star, however, far outshone his competition, leading the Gophers to a 6-3 romp with a pair of goals and an assist. Kessel's second goal, a power play goal just into the final frame, chased highly-touted freshman Billy Sauer from the net and put the exclamation point on the huge victory.
He followed up a superb performance at Yost by having the primary assist on both Gopher goals in a 2-2 tie with Michigan State. Although not extremely flashy, Kessel's execution was something special for a freshman.
"It's not always about scoring goals or making the flashy play," said Kessel. "I'm just trying to do the little things to help my team."
The first score was a thing of beauty as Kessel perfectly executed a two-on-one, drawing the defense and slipping a pass to Danny Irmen for the score. His second assist was a clean faceoff win to Irmen who wristed a shot through traffic and into the net.
"You trust him," Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. "Whatever he wants to do, he's going to make the right play. He's unselfish; he's got a lot of confidence and he can shoot a puck."
After being held scoreless in 3 of his first 5 games, Kessel has registered 17 points in his last 9, including a five-point weekend in the showcase. The freshman points to his comfort level with his line and just as a member of the program in general in turning his slow start into a hot streak.
"[As a freshman] adjusting to your linemates and the game can slow you down. I'm just excited to come out and play for my team," said Kessel. "It's not about how I'm playing as much as it's about coming out and helping the team."
If it's possible, Kessel is beginning to live up to the super-human expectations. "Obviously we've been watching Kessel for a long time," said MSU coach Rick Comley. "He is very, very good - just as good as we imagined." Only time will tell for Kessel, but there is a good chance something special is happening at Minnesota.