June 01, 2017

PITTSBURGH (AP) The fresh-faced, 22-year-old rookie who leads the NHL in playoff goals - a hot streak that has him in the middle of the Conn Smythe Trophy conversation given to the postseason MVP - was once too embarrassed to shoot the puck.

So Jake Guentzel didn't. Not in any sort of great quantity. Better to use his uncanny vision to set up teammates than be greedy. It's a mindset that helped the budding Pittsburgh Penguins star set a school record for assists during his freshman year at Nebraska-Omaha three years ago, a selflessness coach Dean Blais tried to change, with mixed results.

''You want to be unselfish,'' Blais said told Guentzel over and over during Guentzel's three years with the Mavericks. ''But when you've got the opportunity to bury it, you bury it.''

Consider the message finally received.

Guentzel beat Nashville's Pekka Rinne twice in Pittsburgh's 4-1 win in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday as the Penguins took a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. The Nebraska-born, Minnesota-raised son of a coach who spent most of his childhood trying to keep up with older brothers Ryan and Gabe now has a dozen goals during the postseason. That's the most ever by an American-born rookie and within two of Dino Ciccarelli's NHL rookie record set while playing for the Minnesota North Stars in 1981. Oh, and his five game-winning goals so far are tops among first-year players in a league that dates back a century.

''Someone that would have dreamed this is lying,'' Blais said with a laugh.

Maybe, but this is hardly a fluke. Painting the beginning of Guentzel's NHL career as charmed - he did happen to score on his first two shots in his NHL debut in a loss against the New York Rangers in November - doesn't do justice to his talent and work ethic.

Sure, there's a little puck luck involved, but not much. You don't pour in 28 goals and 24 assists in 61 games thanks to a bounce or two.

''He's been given a lot of responsibility and he's done a great job of just continuing to improve and compete,'' Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said.

It's not a coincidence Pittsburgh's equipment manager Dana Heinze put Guentzel in a stall adjacent to Crosby's when the rookie was called up for good in January.

It's a practice the team uses to give young players a chance to get acclimated to life in the NHL while sitting next to the face of the game. Putting a newbie next to Crosby also creates minimal distraction for the rest of the room during the daily media crush around the two-time Hart Trophy winner.

Eventually, however, the crowd breaks up. It's in those quiet moments that Crosby becomes equal parts mentor and teammate.

''I think Sid has a really nice way of making those guys feel comfortable when they come into our dressing room,'' Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. ''The influence he has on these kids goes a long way to giving these kids the confidence that they need.''

Not that Guentzel has ever lacked confidence (his Twitter handle is the playful jakenbake20 ), even if he doesn't exactly fit the physical profile of an elite goal scorer at 5-feet-11 and 180 pounds. Yet he's thrived anyway thanks to a preternatural sense of timing and a hockey IQ gleaned from a lifetime around the game. He was never the biggest in his family but found a way to keep up with Gabe (six years older) and Ryan (eight years older) anyway.

''He got the puck taken away from him a lot,'' Blais said. ''So he learned how to move it. How to protect it. He was always one step ahead.''

In some ways, he still is.

Guentzel's winner in Game 1 against Nashville is a testament to his vision and patience. He was at center ice when the puck was pinched along the wall. He began sprinting toward the Nashville zone before teammate Brian Dumoulin even had it. By the time Guentzel collected Matt Cullen's one-touch pass, he was racing in on Rinne. Rather than just fling the puck at the goaltender, he pulled it back , allowing Nashville's Ryan Ellis to inadvertently screen Rinne. The goaltender could only wave his glove at it as it ripped into the net to put Pittsburgh ahead to stay.

The player who never wanted to shoot now can't seem to stop. Blais can't help but laugh. Maybe the problem before wasn't the message but the messengers.

''I might say it, Sullivan says it,'' Blais said. ''But when Sid tells you to shoot the puck, you better shoot the puck.''

Guentzel had an eight-game goal drought that lasted from Game 6 of the second round against Washington until the opener of the Final. Sullivan opted to keep Guentzel in the lineup, though he briefly took him off Crosby's line in hopes of a reset.

The two were reunited during the latter portions of Game 2. Guentzel's rebound goal 10 seconds into the third period came on a set play of sorts. Bryan Rust came in on the rush and flipped the puck at Rinne. The rebound went right to Guentzel waiting in the slot. He had no problem powering it into the open net .

''When the plays are there, his instincts will take over,'' Sullivan said. ''He's a real talented kid.''

When he was at Omaha, Guentzel would arrive two hours early to practice, meticulously preparing his gear, then going to pick the brain of the coaching staff until his teammates showed up.

''He'd want to know what was going on,'' Blais said.

That kind of focus has served Guentzel well during his transition to the NHL. He doesn't think too much about the big picture, just the little ones. That attention to detail helped him earn a captaincy with the Mavericks and when Blais describes Guentzel's leadership style, it sounds an awful lot like the guy Guentzel hangs his No. 59 sweater next to every day.

''He'll say things to the point and not be a `rah rah' type guy,'' Blais said. ''He'll just say the right thing. He prepares himself for success.''

Good thing, because it's coming. Fast.

---

For more AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

You May Like