PITTSBURGH – Sometimes having a dressing room stall next to Sidney Crosby can be a pain. You come off the ice after practice or a game and there’s a swarm of reporters hovering around the Pittsburgh Penguins captain. So you wait. And then you wait some more; hoping that the herd thins out and a bit of real estate opens up allowing you to take off your gear.
— Penguins PR (@PensPRLady) May 5, 2017
But that wait? It’s worth it for a young player. And being in that situation is a deliberate choice by the Penguins’ coaching staff, and Jake Guentzel has been benefiting.
When an NHL novice is added to the Penguin’s roster, Mike Sullivan will make sure that he has a spot near Crosby. It’s an easy way to put them at ease and make them comfortable in a room that can be quite intimidating with the star power inside.
“The influence that he has on these kids goes a long way to giving these kids the confidence that they need,” Sullivan said after the Penguins’ 4-1 victory over the Nashville Predators in Game 2. “These guys really look up to some of the players that we have on our team, Sid being probably that personifies that. I think he has a great way of disarming that right away and making guys feel comfortable when they come into our dressing room.”
The wait has been worth it for Guentzel, who scored twice in Game 2 and now has three goals in the Stanley Cup Final. He exploded out of the gate with nine goals in his first 11 postseason games and now the 22-year-old Minnesota native leads all players with 12 goals, putting him two behind Dino Ciccarelli for the all-time lead among NHL rookies in a single postseason. As if he wasn’t making enough history this spring, his 19 points is the most by an American-born rookie in a playoff season.
Should the Penguins go on to win the series, he’s certainly played his way into consideration for the Conn Smythe Trophy.
The attention over the course of the season has only grown for Guentzel, who scored twice in his NHL debut back in November and finished with 17 goals and 33 points in 40 games. He recorded his first NHL hat trick in the opening round against Columbus and is now responsible for both game-winning goals against the Predators.
“He’s amazing. Some games he play quiet, you not see him, but right time he’s here,” said Evgeni Malkin.
Even the old guys are impressed with Guentzel’s impact. Said fellow Minnesotan Matt Cullen: “Gosh, he’s been good. Obviously the puck’s going in and he’s made great plays to score goals. I thought last game, watching him, he brings energy, he’s hanging onto pucks, he’s making plays. He’s an all-around player. He’s finishing so well right now, but he does everything and he puts himself in good spots to score goals and he’s got a great shot. He’s just been so clutch for us.”
Guentzel started Game 2 with Nick Bonino and Carter Rowney, but Sullivan was so impressed with his play that he bumped him up next to Crosby, his dressing room neighbor.
Ten seconds into the third period, Crosby won the opening face-off and Ron Hainsey sent winger Bryan Rust into the Nashville zone after winning a 50/50 puck battle along the boards. Rust then shot the puck on Rinne with one purpose in mind: to create a rebound. Sure enough, it took a heavy bounce off Rinne’s left pad and squirted out to Guentzel, who was in perfect position to score.
“He’s in and around the net all the time,” said Crosby. “I think his hockey sense allows all of those skills to really be shown. You can tell he sees the ice really well out there.”
Guentzel went eight games without a goal before Game 1, which saw the question of whether he would be healthy scratch to start the series bubble up. Sullivan shaved his minutes during the Ottawa series hoping that would help him against the effects that the long NHL schedule, compared to the one he played in NCAA hockey at Nebraska-Omaha, can have on a young player. There was also a talk with the coach where the young forward was receptive to everything being told to him.
“He was great. He’s a conscientious kid. He’s a pleasure to coach,” Sullivan said. “We just talked about just playing the game the right way, focusing on the details, shift after shift, not being concerned about scoring goals or making plays. It’s winning puck battles, it’s the wall play, gaining lines, it’s taking what the game gives you. When the plays are there his instincts will take over. He’s a real talented kid.”
As the Stanley Cup pauses for a two-day break with Game 3 coming up Saturday in Nashville, Guentzel will see his share of those reporters that usually hound Crosby venture over to his stall.
“It’s crazy,” Guentzel said. “You can’t even put into words what it feels like. But we know the ultimate goal is two more wins.”
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