Play­ing like a vet

Out of nowhere star Jake Guentzel keeps scor­ing at ev­ery stop

Cape Breton Post - - Sports - BY JONAS SIEGEL

Pen­guins winger Jake Guentzel was such an un­known com­mod­ity that his own cap­tain hardly knew who he was be­fore the sea­son be­gan.

“I heard some of the scouts and some of the peo­ple who were in­volved in the (prospect) camps talk­ing about him, but didn’t know a lot about him as a player,” Sid­ney Crosby said of the 22-year-old.

Now the one-time stick-boy for Phil Kes­sel and lit­tle-known prospect from an un­likely hockey out­post has be­come an out-of-nowhere star for the Pen­guins. His fourth game-win­ning goal of the play­offs, com­ing Mon­day against Nashville in Game 1 of the Stan­ley Cup fi­nal, equalled an NHL rookie record and pushed the Pen­guins closer to a sec­ond straight crown.

A former third-round pick, Guentzel joined the Pen­guins in Novem­ber from the Amer­i­can Hockey League and scored twice in his first NHL game. He fin­ished the year be­hind only Aus­ton Matthews and Pa­trik Laine in goals and points pergame among rook­ies.

Guentzel played mostly with Crosby, pot­ting 16 goals on 81 shots while adding 17 as­sists in only 40 reg­u­lar-sea­son games. He’s con­tin­ued fir­ing away in the play­offs, lead­ing all play­ers with 10 goals this spring – eight of them at even-strength. He’s only the fifth rookie ever to reach dou­ble-dig­its in goals in a sin­gle play­off and four points shy of the NHL rookie record for points – a

mark held by Dino Cic­carelli and Ville Leino, who each had 21.

Guentzel was born in Omaha, Neb., and raised in Min­nesota, and it was there he first came into con­tact with Kes­sel as a stick-boy for the Univer­sity of Min­nesota Golden Go­phers where his fa­ther, Mike, worked as an as­sis­tant coach.

Kes­sel ended up as his first NHL line­mate – Ev­geni Malkin was the other – and set up his first goal, but long be­fore that Guentzel was a real ques­tion mark to even crack the league. He was ranked 80th among North Amer­i­can skaters by NHL central scout­ing ahead of the 2013 draft and went 77th over­all to the Pen­guins.

The biggest knock against

him was his size – he was only five-foot-nine and less than 160 pounds ahead of the draft.

It didn’t mat­ter in col­lege hockey, where he ripped up the NCAA from the spot of his birthplace – the Univer­sity of Ne­braska-Omaha – and again in the AHL, which he pro­ceeded to tear it up (28 goals, 62 points in 54 games) dur­ing brief stints last year and again this fall.

Those who saw him there in Wilkes-Barre weren’t sur­prised when he stepped into the NHL and did sim­i­lar things.

“Hon­estly, you could ask any­body down there they weren’t shocked at all,” Pen­guins de­fence­man Chad Ruh­wedel said of Guentzel, who looks smaller than his listed 180 pounds. “He was light­ing it up down there and you could just see the plays he would make. They weren’t just like high­light reel-goals, but he’s scor­ing in the dirty ar­eas and stuff. And then he comes up here and does it (again).

“Hon­estly, guys aren’t sur­prised at all.”

Crosby no­ticed the hockey sense first. The speed and skill was ob­vi­ous, “But I think just the hockey sense was some­thing you could see right away,” Crosby said. “You could see some plays, es­pe­cially as he got more and more com­fort­able to make those plays, you could see it came pretty easy to him.”

Guentzel cooled off af­ter a wicked start to the play­offs and was ques­tion­able to even play in Game 1 against the Preds af­ter a for­get­table end to the East­ern Con­fer­ence fi­nal. He played a team-low 14 min­utes in the dou­ble over­time Game 7 win against Ot­tawa and was dropped from Crosby’s line.

He hadn’t scored in eight straight be­fore Mon­day’s big goal and Pen­guins head coach Mike Sul­li­van won­dered if he was tir­ing from so much hockey – the most of his young ca­reer. Sul­li­van listed him as a game-time de­ci­sion for Game 1 against Nashville, and though he gave Guentzel the nod over Carl Hagelin, he started him on a fourth line with Matt Cullen and Pa­tric Horn­qvist.

Sul­li­van said they never lost faith and Guentzel re­warded it by break­ing a 3-3 tie with just over three min­utes left in reg­u­la­tion. It was his first shot of the game and first by the Pen­guins in 37 min­utes.

AP PHOTO

Pittsburgh Pen­guins for­ward Jake Guentzel, front, cel­e­brates a goal by team­mate Ev­geni Malkin dur­ing Mon­day’s Game 1 of the Stan­ley Cup Fi­nal.

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