PITTSBURGH — It was Hockey Night in Canada, primetime for the Penguins’ penultimate regular-season game, and Jake Guentzel was getting nervous. From a distance, this might seem silly. By then, the rookie forward had already spent three-plus months with Pittsburgh, already posted six multi-point efforts for the defending Stanley Cup champions, already scored on the very first shot of his NHL career. But Saturday, April 8 promised an entirely new challenge. With winger Chris Kunitz sidelined, Sidney Crosby needed a new partner for his usual passing drill during warmups. The captain tabbed the kid.
“He told his mom that he was scared out of his shorts,” says Mike Guentzel, Jake’s father. “He goes, ‘God, if I don’t make a perfect pass to him, I’m going to screw up his routine.’”
The worries proved unfounded. Everything unfolded according to script on the Air Canada Centre ice, Crosby and Guentzel saucering pucks back and forth, faceoff dot to faceoff dot. It was a smooth transition for the 22-year-old Guentzel, not unlike his leap from college into professional hockey. Around this time last spring he had just inked an entry-level contract following his junior season at Nebraska-Omaha, after which Mike, an assistant for the University of Minnesota, began hoping that Jake could make between 5-10 NHL appearances in ‘16-17. Expectations inside the Penguins’ front office were similar. When asked what he anticipated from Guentzel, assistant GM Bill Guerin replies, “Less than what we’re getting.”
Certainly no one could’ve envisioned what happened Monday night in Pittsburgh, site of the Stanley Cup Final opener. Nursing an eight-game goal drought—plus a playoff-record 37 straight shotless minutes for the Penguins as a team—Guentzel hopped from the bench with roughly three and a half minutes left and cut through the neutral zone. Taking a touch pass from center Matt Cullen at Nashville’s blue line, Guentzel squared toward goalie Pekka Rinne and, using defenseman Ryan Ellis as a screen, ripped a wrister into the top-right corner, the decisive strike in a 5-3 win. He raised both arms and circled the net. Even he looked amazed.
“It’s been a crazy year,” Guentzel said the following afternoon at the Penguins’ practice facility in suburban Cranberry Township. “You’ve just got to soak it in.”
He was standing a few feet away from his usual stall, the price of occupying real estate directly adjacent to Crosby. (“It wasn’t just the open spot,” Guerin says. “Those things are done on purpose.”) Like so many other kids, Guentzel had grown up idolizing Crosby and Evgeni Malkin; in a spark of serendipity, he also served as Phil Kessel’s stick boy at Minnesota. Now he is here, not just hanging but belonging. “I think he’s quietly competitive, but he’s shown a lot of poise too,” Crosby said moments earlier. “You see the situations he’s been throw into, for a young player, that isn’t always easy, but he’s handled it well.”
This most recent stretch was the toughest. Not that Guentzel had much for comparison. Upon receiving his first call-up from Scranton-Wilkes Barre he had scored on the first shot of his first shift, and then again on his third, turning his family into shrieking, GIFable loons. Through two playoff rounds, mostly spent flanking Crosby, he had scored nine times in 14 games; with an assist on Bryan Rust’s Game 7 clincher in Washington, he also broke Jaromir Jagr’s team record for rookie playoff scoring with 14.
Then the offense dried up. In the seven-game Eastern Conference finals against Ottawa, Guentzel finished with just two assists. “We felt that he might have been wearing down a little bit,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “The coaching staff was trying to be proactive and trying to find ways to maybe cut his minutes a little bit so that we would get more productive minutes from him. Quite honestly, to take a little bit of pressure off him. But by no means did we lose faith.”
And so rather than getting scratched, Guentzel found himself demoted to Monday’s fourth line, where he skated alongside Cullen and Patric Hornqvist. It followed a string of conversations with Sullivan, who preached a simple message: “Just stay with it and be positive,” Guentzel says.
This has always been a strength. Born into thick hockey bloodlines—Mike was a seventh-round pick of the Rangers and, before joining the Gophers, worked as a head coach in the USHL for five seasons—Guentzel learned to compensate for a lack of size with keen spatial awareness. “He understood that when he got below the goal line, he just couldn’t let anybody latch onto him,” says Mike Guentzel, clapping his hands for effect, “because it would’ve been over. His escaping and turning and cutting back from people, and keeping his eyes moving, you could see that from day one. He just had that ability.”
“He’s probably one of the smartest hockey players I’ve ever played with,” says Penguins forward Josh Archibald, a former Nebraska-Omaha teammate. “He’s got eyes in the back of his head.”
Which perhaps explains why Crosby enjoys having Guentzel nearby. Though the results haven’t quite been glamorous—in the 210-plus even-strength minutes that the pair has skated together these playoffs, the Penguins have been outshot 134-98 and outscored 16-8, according to naturalstattrick.com—there exists some strong mama-mallard-and-her-duckling vibes. At Monday’s workout, Guentzel and Crosby were the only two on the ice wearing black jerseys, conducting tip drills together after the optional practice ended.
“He’s picked up stuff off everybody he’s ever played with,” Mike Guentzel says. “How’s a guy tying the skates? How’s he working on his sticks? What color tape is he using? What time’s he getting his uniform on before the pregame warmup? The mind’s always working.”
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When the locker room opens to reporters, typical conversations with Guentzel barely last the length of an average shift. “At first he’s standoffish and pretty shy,” forward Carter Rowney says. “But once you get to know him he’s a happy kid, loves to talk, loves to joke around.” In particular, teammates rib him about the distinct lack of playoff beard. “He tries,” Rowney says. “You can’t really see it unless you’re a foot away from him.”
Fortunately his hockey talents are much more obvious, whether sniping winners in the Stanley Cup final or subbing pregame alongside the best player of this generation. In mid-January, after the Penguins recalled Guentzel for a second time, Jake phoned his father. “I’m going up to stay up,” he told Mike. “I’m ready for this. I prepared for this.”