This hasn’t been the same high-flying Penguins squad that we saw in 2016, even though Pittsburgh is just one win away from a return trip to the Eastern Conference finals. It has been a gutsy, smart, opportunistic, resilient, find-a-way-to-win team, however. The Penguins are, once again, on the verge of the final four. But at times it’s been a bit of surprise that they’ve gotten this far.
A little like Guentzel himself.
Look at the postseason scoring leaderboard, and you’ll find the 22-year-old kid from Minnesota sitting alone at the top, with eight goals in his first nine career playoff games. To put that in perspective, NHL.com’s Nick Cotsonika went back through history to figure out who else has matched that kind of production in his first nine playoff games. It’s a short list: Maurice Richard, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. Not bad.
Richard. Gretzky. Lemieux. Guentzel. That’s the list of players with eight or more goals in their first nine playoff games.
— Nick Cotsonika (@cotsonika) May 4, 2017
So yeah, it’s been a bit of a whirlwind for a kid who was playing college hockey for Nebraska-Omaha last season.
“I don’t know if you can describe it,” said his dad, Mike Guentzel. “This whole 13 months since he turned pro has been more than you can imagine. I keep telling people, ‘I hope they don’t wake us up from this dream.'”
“It’s crazy,” Guentzel concurred. “[I’ve gotten] a lot of texts.”
It’s been less than a year since the Penguins officially signed Guentzel to an entry-level contract after a tryout with Wilkes-Barre in the AHL. There were signs even then that he was ready to be a big-game player. Guentzel had 14 points in 10 AHL playoff games last spring, including an overtime goal against Providence that propelled Wilkes-Barre to the second round.
It hinted at what was ahead and also assured the 5-foot-11, 180-pound Guentzel that, even without ideal NHL size, his game could translate to the professional level.
“It gave him a new view of where he’s at and where the pro game is at,” Mike Guentzel said. “That really boosted Jake’s confidence. He’s always been able to score, make plays. He’s always had the ability in big moments, big games — tied or behind — to get a big goal or big play.”
It’s also what attracted the Penguins to Guentzel in the first place. He was drafted — in the third round (77th overall) in 2013 — during a time when the Penguins were often forced to operate without many draft picks or a first-round selection, since picks were also the currency used to solidify a roster built to win a Stanley Cup.
Former Penguins GM Ray Shero had a few non-negotiable criteria he passed along to his scouts. For a prospect to get on the Penguins’ list, he needed to have a mix of skill, a consistent pace to his game, hockey sense, competitiveness and the ability to play without fear of confrontation.
A criterion that wasn’t on the list? Size. The Penguins were willing to overlook the typical height and weight concerns if a player checked all those other boxes. Guentzel certainly did.
“Most importantly, he competes,” said New Jersey Devils assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald, who was part of the staff under Shero who drafted Guentzel. “He can slide into a line with [Sidney] Crosby and [Evgeni] Malkin and he just plays. He doesn’t get fazed by Crosby.”
That’s been an important distinction for Guentzel. Before Crosby suffered a concussion in Game 3 of the Penguins’ Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Washington Capitals, Guentzel had settled in nicely on the captain’s wing. And to Fitzgerald and the rest of us, he looked like he wasn’t daunted in the least by playing with the best player in the world.
But that comfort level wasn’t automatic.
“At first, you’re just watching him and you’re in awe of him,” Guentzel said of playing with Crosby. “The biggest thing is he tells you to play your game and do your thing out there. Once that happened, [I] relaxed a little bit and had some fun.”
What Guentzel appreciated was Crosby’s constant communication. He said that after nearly every shift, there were conversations about what needed to be done differently the next time out. Conor Sheary went through the same thing last year when he played alongside Crosby.
“Any young guy who comes up and has a chance to play with Sid, it’s an honor but it’s also a big responsibility,” Sheary said. “[Crosby] talks a lot, whether it’s on the bench. He’ll tell you if he thinks he was open and you didn’t give it to him and other times he’ll tell you to keep it if you have a chance. Growing chemistry with him, it’s important to have that.”
Before he got hurt, Crosby expressed his appreciation for Guentzel’s ability to make small, smart plays on the ice that suggested an experience beyond his nine career playoff games.
Maybe it’s being the son of a hockey coach. (Mike coached at the junior level, in the USHL and is now the associate head coach at Minnesota.) Maybe it’s from growing up around the game in a hockey-crazed state. Guentzel is the classic rink rat, which endears him to everyone who coaches him.
He’s had success at every level. He’s met every challenge. Now, he may have to find his way without Crosby, while the Penguins’ captain recovers from a concussion. Guentzel’s track record suggests he’ll do just fine.
“He’s a guy that finds ways to have success regardless of who we put him with,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “He has a complete game. He can play down low and grind. He has hockey sense. He can make plays off the rush. He plays with a lot of courage. He’s not afraid to go to the net and take a cross check and bang a rebound and maybe get a stick on a deflection.”
In short, he finds different ways to score. Very much like his team has this postseason.