June 1, 2017
Jake Guentzel #59 of the Pittsburgh Penguins scores a goal past Pekka Rinne #35 of the Nashville Predators during the first period in Game Two of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at PPG Paints Arena on May 31, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH — Jake Guentzel looks like the kid next door, only younger.
He can’t grow a playoff beard. “Terrible,” his father Mike calls it. “Just terrible.”
What he can do is score.
He scored on his first NHL shift. He scored in his first Stanley Cup playoff game. He scored the winning goal in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final and two straight goals, including the winner, in Game 2.
He scored, impressively, when he played with Sidney Crosby. And more impressively, he has scored playing away from Crosby. On Wednesday night, Guentzel scored his 11th and 12th goal of the playoffs, two away from Dino Ciccarelli’s rookie record of 14 from 1981. The game winner in Game 2 was his fifth of this playoff season. No rookie has ever done that before.
It is to the point where Guentzel is giddy, his teammates are giddy about having a two-game lead in a final where they have rarely been the better team, and his family, in the stands at the PPG Paints Arena, is giddy watching him dance his way into the record books.
“This year’s been just a blur,” said Mike Guentzel, who coached Jake most of his life. “It’s just magical what’s happening. I don’t know what to say. We were hoping Jake would play five to 10 games this year for the Penguins this year, and then he got called up.”
And all he has done since is score goals. He has that gift. His next goal, if there is a next goal, will be his 50th of this hockey season split between AHL Wilkes-Barre and Pittsburgh.
“You can’t even write this up in your wildest dreams,” the father said. “I’m happy for Jake. A couple of days ago, he was worried about being in the lineup and now he’s got 12 goals in the NHL playoffs, and you read Twitter and you see the pictures and see things being said, that he’s this and he’s that and he’s broke this record and broke that record. The first time you see his name opposite Gretzky and Lemieux and Rocket Richard for rookie scoring. It can’t get any better than that. And it just keeps going on and on.
“The thing is, he’s just so driven and having so much fun. It’s such a good experience. As parents, we’re just blessed. We’re here. His brothers are here. Every time we’re here as a family, he scores.”
Jake Guentzel #59 of the Pittsburgh Penguins speaks during a press conference after Game Two of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at PPG Paints Arena on May 31, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Nashville Predators with a score of 4 to 1. (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)
And his dad said he’s not a natural goal scorer, although his playoff evidence would beg to differ. Before this season, he’s usually played centre. “He’s a pass-first, shoot-second player,” said Mike.
“All of a sudden, he’s playing the wing. I was giving him a hard time (the other day). ‘When are you going to shoot one in?’ They went off his foot. They went off his butt. They went off his shin pad. The other night, though, he came in and shot top shelf and beat a goalie. I thought ‘Wow, that’s an NHL shot.’”
It isn’t Crosby scoring these goals. It isn’t Evgeni Malkin. It isn’t Phil Kessel. It’s this third-round draft pick, who was described earlier this season by Hall of Fame Pittsburgh hockey writer Dave Molinari as 50 Shades of Bland.
“He just keeps doing it,” Crosby said. “He just keeps elevating his game.”
The Penguins are now two games away from the first back-to-back Stanley Cup championship in years. A year ago this time, when the Penguins were celebrating, Guentzel was home on the couch with his family.
“We sat on that couch together, and we’re thinking ‘Boy, it’s going to be hard to make that team next season,’” Mike said. “And here he is now. He’s on that team.”
He’s not just on that team. He’s leading them. He’s leading the playoffs in goal scoring. This team with two Hall of Fame centres, and he’s not playing with either of them. With five winning goals, he has to now be in the Conn Smythe conversation, if only for some kind of recognition.
A recognition that is no longer far fetched. Guentzel is starring in the Stanley Cup playoffs. He can do everything but grow a beard.