These NHL playoffs have been about the sidekicks

Tuesday May 9th, 2017

Around the turn of the 20th century the author William Sydney Porter—better known as O. Henry, his pruned nom de plume—wrote Jimmy Hayes and Muriel, a short story that follows a battalion of rangers along the Rio Grande and contains one of American literature's earliest references to the archetype of the sidekick. For soldiers facing bandits at the border, finding a trustworthy companion was a life-and-death matter, "done with ten times the care and discretion with which a girl chooses a sweetheart," O. Henry wrote. "On your 'side-kicker's' nerve, loyalty, aim, and coolness your own life may depend many times."

Accompanied by a pet horned frog named Muriel who lives inside a flannel shirt, Jimmy Hayes becomes the hero in the story's end. (The same couldn't be said of the real-life, 27-year-old Jimmy Hayes, the Bruins winger who was scratched for all six games of a first-round loss to the Senators.) But through two rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the NHL's Muriels are getting their due. With the lone exception of the Rangers—a roster full of Tontos, you could say—every team still alive on Sunday boasts a superstar skater who commands the bulk of the opponents' attention, in turn leaving the sidekicks free to step from their shadows and hop into the spotlight.

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Take the Oilers' Patrick Maroon. Inspired by the chance to flank sensation Connor McDavid, the burly 6' 3" winger—who doesn't skate so much as he mulches the ice—increased his cardio, cut 21 pounds in the offseason and snatched the sidekick gig from Milan Lucic, whom Edmonton had signed to a seven-year, $42 million contract last summer. Maroon finished with a career-high 27 goals. Proximity to greatness can be a powerful incentive. "I just had to get my body to where it needed to be to keep up with Connor," says Maroon, 29, who had seven points through six games against Anaheim in the Western Conference semifinals. "I wanted that spot."

Skating shotgun has its plum perks, but make no mistake, it isn't just about cruising along for the ride. "You can't be intimidated," says Penguins assistant general manager Bill Guerin, Sidney Crosby's right-wingman during Pittsburgh's 2009 run. "You have to understand that you bring something to the table. You have to tell yourself, 'Hey, look, I'm a good f------ player too.'"

Still, deference is often required. Asked about the key to co-existing with the freewheeling and flamboyant P.K. Subban, Predators defenseman Mattias Ekholm replies, "Just got to let him do his thing and try to stay out of the way." It's working; when the pair is on the ice at even strength, Nashville holds a 54.1% advantage in shot attempts, a big reason the Preds have advanced to their first-ever conference finals.

But this spring's sturdiest second fiddles can be found harmonizing alongside the league's biggest stars, in a reprise from last year's second-round series between the Penguins and the Capitals. As always, the luminaries garnered the headlines: Crosby opened the series with two multipoint games, both Pittsburgh wins, before suffering a concussion early in Game  3. Upon his return in Game 5, Alex Ovechkin, his team facing elimination, cranked Washington's final tally in a 4–2 triumph while skating on the third line, a shrewd demotion by coach Barry Trotz that jolted his bottom six from an offensive slumber.

Now step back from the glow. See Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh's peach-fuzzed rookie forward, the postseason leader with eight goals who spent the semester studying physics online while building chemistry with Crosby on the ice? And T.J. Oshie, the Caps' bouncy veteran right wing who has transformed into a 30-goal scorer skating with Ovechkin and center Nicklas Backstrom? They are the side-kickers, lower in profile yet equally vital. Hockey isn't basketball, after all. Two or three superstars can't tug teams to titles.

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Viewed from the perch of an NHL press box, the choreography of pregame warmups can be a hypnotic spectacle. Night after night, players step onto the ice in the same order, stretch their hip flexors in the same spots, shoot from the same lanes at the same times. No one attacks these metronomic tasks with greater zeal than Oshie.

Midway through Oshie's routine, a Capitals equipment manager frisbees a puck from the bench, which the winger catches on his stick. Sometimes he juggles it between his legs. As the horn sounds, he bounds into the tunnel like Mario grabbing a midair mushroom, once catching Trotz by surprise and almost whacking the coach in the dome. ("Now they know to stay out of the way," Oshie says.) But the best part of his routine comes right before he heads off the ice, when Oshie retreats to the blue line and lofts a high-arching puck, aiming to land it atop the net. His single-season record is three, but 2016–17 saw only one success. "I've had a terrible year for flipping," he says.

In every other regard Oshie has enjoyed a career year. He led the NHL with a 23.1% shooting rate during the regular season, becoming the first Capital to match Ovechkin goal for goal (33) despite playing 14 fewer games. "Everyone's always watching Ovi," he says, "so it opens up a lot of space for the third spot."

In St. Louis, where he spent his first seven seasons, Oshie often felt as if he and his linemates were carbon copies of one another: "We all played the exact same way." But when the Capitals targeted and acquired him in the summer of 2015, they did so because he was different. While the bombastic Ovechkin launches cannonballs and the reclusive Backstrom steers through stealthy skill, Oshie brings, as goalie Braden Holtby puts it, "extreme excitement and intensity, kind of in between the two."

It certainly helps that Oshie's skill can keep up. In addition to his shootout prowess, which earned him American hero status at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Oshie has an uncanny knack for controlling pucks by kicking them and stickhandling from his knees. "My mind gets ahead of my feet a lot," he says, "which is why I fall all the time." Another explanation: To free up his linemates on the perimeter, Oshie mucks around in high-traffic areas like a bottom-six bulldog. "Osh checked off all the boxes," Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan says. "He's a little bit of everything."

Kept with Backstrom while Ovechkin dropped in the depth chart for Game 5, Oshie went goalless for the sixth straight game, but his energy in puck battles along the walls created chances. With a team-leading seven assists through Sunday, Oshie was the catalyst in the Capitals' first-round triumph over the Maple Leafs, scoring the winner in the tide-turning Game 4.

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"That's the break of a lifetime," says retired winger Mike Knuble, who had arguably been Washington's most stable third wheel in the Ovechkin era before Oshie arrived. Knuble never received any tokens of appreciation quite like the custom, camouflaged UTVs that Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott gifted his offensive linemen last Christmas, but the sidekick job still offered a solid benefits package: "Tons of ice time," Knuble says. "And a new contract."
 
That Guentzel nailed the audition as Crosby's Sancho Panza hardly seems quixotic in hindsight. Even more than his speed and fearless forechecking, the 22-year-old draws breathless praise from Penguins brass for his hockey brain. "He's just so smart," Guerin says. "Jake thinks the game at a high-enough level that he can mentally keep up with Sid."

Over the summer Mike Guentzel, an assistant coach at the University of Minnesota, had hoped that his son might see action in five to 10 NHL games during his first professional season, "just to learn the league." Fourteen months ago, when Jake left the University of Nebraska Omaha after his junior year to sign an entry-level contract, Pittsburgh moved the lifelong centerman to the wing, where he could develop more quickly alongside Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. A similar plan worked for Penguins forwards Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary, who got their call-ups last year midseason and became Cup champions the following June.

But so soon? "He earned it," Guerin says. "He has reset the bar for expectations."

The recalibration began last Nov. 21, in Jake's debut, when he scored on the first shot at home against the Rangers, and continued 12 minutes later, when he netted his second goal as Mike waited in line for beer. In Game 4 against Washington, Jake scored on a centering pass that banked off defenseman Dmitry Orlov's skate, making Guentzel just the fourth player to score eight or more goals in his first nine playoff games. The others: Maurice (Rocket) Richard, Wayne Gretzky and Guentzel's boss, Penguins owner Mario Lemieux.

All that after passing four online courses during the season to work toward fulfilling outstanding general education requirements for his college degree in business. "His brain is always working," Mike Guentzel says.

Whenever Jake tagged along with his dad to Gophers hockey practice, Mike would catch him eyeballing players completing the stodgiest chores—preparing sticks, taping shin guards, tying skate laces—so he could repeat their habits before youth games. Now, Guentzel can pick Crosby's brain from the neighboring locker stall. Sitting at the bend of the room's U-shaped setup, they give off a knight-and-his-steward kind of vibe. "It wasn't just the open spot," Guerin says. "Those things are done on purpose."

There is, however, one downside to sitting in the shadow of greatness. On the eve of Game 5, as reporters swarmed Crosby to inquire about his health, Guentzel returned from practice to find his seat blocked. So he plopped down in a nearby stall and patiently waited in the wings. No worries, his smile said. Happens all the time.

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