Kessel returns to Toronto Saturday night looking to be part of a fourth consecutive Penguins' victory, a feeling he rarely experienced during six mostly unsuccessful and at-times turbulent seasons with the Maple Leafs that ended with the enigmatic forward's July trade to Pittsburgh.
The three-time All-Star's 181 goals during his Toronto tenure were the fifth-most in the NHL, but the Maple Leafs reached the playoffs only once over those six seasons and Kessel's relationship with fans and media was often contentious. With the team entering another rebuilding phase, he was shipped to Pittsburgh (6-4-0) for forward Nick Spaling, prospects Scott Harrington and Kasperi Kapanen and two conditional draft choices.
Kessel has begun to settle in nicely with his new team, scoring three goals in five games as part of a 6-1-0 stretch that included a 2-1 home win over Toronto on Oct. 17.
''It's different, but it's part of the game,'' Kessel said following that victory. ''You just get used to it.''
Pittsburgh's other established stars are beginning to hit their stride as well. Evgeni Malkin has four goals and six assists over his last eight games after recording one of each in Thursday's 4-3 win over Buffalo. Sidney Crosby had two assists after notching only three points through the first nine.
''We know we have the guys that can score, but you're not going to win just on talent,'' said forward Pascal Dupuis, who notched his first goal since returning from an 11-month absence caused by career-threatening blood clots. ''You have to grind games and win them the hard way. It's what we're learning to do early in the year.''
Marc-Andre Fleury has posted a 1.50 goals-against average while starting the first six games of the surge, and will be back in action after Jeff Zatkoff amassed a career-high 50 saves against the Sabres.
Fleury has won four straight meetings with Toronto (1-6-2) and stopped 26 shots in the most recent one, which began a five-game losing streak the Leafs extended with Friday's 3-1 loss at the New York Rangers.
Toronto has just nine goals during its skid and owns the NHL's second-worst power-play at 8.7 percent (2 for 23). The Penguins have been only slightly better at 9.4 percent (3 for 32) and had an 0 for 11 stretch snapped by Malkin's goal on Thursday.
Malkin has five goals and five assists while playing in five of Pittsburgh's six consecutive wins over Toronto, which last defeated the Penguins Oct. 26, 2013 at Air Canada Centre. He and defenseman Olli Maata scored 39 seconds apart during the first period of last month's matchup, spoiling an otherwise solid 31-save outing from Jonathan Bernier.
Bernier fell to 0-4-2 in six career starts against the Penguins and is 0-5-1 this season despite stopping 23 of 25 shots in Friday's defeat.
"I thought we had some opportunities and thought Bernier had his best night of the year," Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock told the NHL's official website. "We did some good things, but we have to find a way to win games."