How Penguins Rookie Jake Guentzel Is Outscoring Sidney Crosby in the Playoffs

Adrian Dater@@adaterNHL National ColumnistJune 9, 2017

Pittsburgh Penguins' Jake Guentzel celebrates his first goal in the NHL on his first shot in his first NHL shift during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the New York Rangers in Pittsburgh, Monday, Nov. 21, 2016. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

Quick, name the American town or city where the biggest breakout star of these Stanley Cup playoffs was born. (Insert Final Jeopardy music here.)

Time's up. Reveal answers now. Duluth, Minnesota? Good guess, but no, sorry. Portland, Maine? Not the one. Omaha, Nebraska?

Cue Peyton Manning: Yes. OMAHA!

That the NHL playoffs' leading goal scorer was born in and played his college hockey in Cornhusker country just keeps adding to the unbelievable, unfolding tale that is Jake Guentzel's life story. How did a smallish, towheaded American rookie, who didn't even start the season in the NHL, emerge as a crucial member of the Pittsburgh Penguins and a serious threat to break an all-time rookie record?

Don't ask Dean Blais. Even though he helped recruit Guentzel to his nascent University of Nebraska-Omaha hockey program and coached him for three years, Blais is admittedly as surprised as anyone Guentzel has been this good on the biggest stage for the Penguins, who Thursday in Pittsburgh went up 3-2 in the final with a 6-0 defeat of the Nashville Predators.

Jake Guentzel (left) has an ideal collaborator in linemate Sidney Crosby.
Jake Guentzel (left) has an ideal collaborator in linemate Sidney Crosby.Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images

"If anyone says they saw him maybe breaking the rookie playoff scoring record, they are probably exaggerating just a bit," said Blais, the three-time NCAA championship-winning coach who recently resigned from the Nebraska-Omaha program. "But while I'm surprised, I'm not shocked. Jake was always just such a self-motivated person."

Guentzel's 13 goals stand just one shy of Dino Ciccarelli's NHL rookie record, set with the Minnesota North Stars in 1981. Guentzel is currently three goals ahead of any other NHL player in the playoffs and five ahead of Sidney Crosby, his teammate who led the NHL regular season in goals with 44.

While many are wondering if Guentzel is a one-hit hockey wonder, 400-plus goal scorer Ray Ferraro, now an analyst with TSN and NBC, doesn't think so.

"He doesn't look lucky. I like his game," Ferraro said. "He's slippery along the boards, as his size [5'11", 180 pounds] is something he's had to work around. He doesn't get pinned much. He's got a very quick release."

Playing left wing primarily on a line with Crosby, Guentzel has morphed into something he never was under Blais, despite his coach's constant pleading: a shoot first, ask questions later performer.

Guentzel scored on 13 of his first 47 shots of the playoffs, a 27.7 percent conversion rate. In 40 regular-season games, he scored on 16 of 81 shots (19.8). In his freshman season under Blais at Nebraska-Omaha in 2013-14, Guentzel scored seven goals on 84 shots, with 27 assists, in 37 games. The next two seasons, he also had more assists than goals.

Jake Guentzel in his playing days at his hometown school, University of Nebraska-Omaha.
Jake Guentzel in his playing days at his hometown school, University of Nebraska-Omaha.Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Now, as they call players in hockey who get far more goals than assists, Guentzel has turned into a "Cy Young."

These NHL playoffs, in fact, mark the first time in Guentzel's entire recorded hockey career he's had more goals than assists.

"I always wanted him to shoot more. I told him a million times: 'Shoot the damn puck,'" Blais said. "But it was like pulling teeth. It just wasn't the natural thing for him. He looked for the pass first, and he was a great playmaker, don't get me wrong. But I saw that he had a good shot, and when you have a good shot as a hockey player, you have to use it."

What Blais couldn't get from Guentzel, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan and—probably more important an influence—the estimable Crosby have.

"I don't think it's a coincidence that since he's played with [Crosby], he's shooting more than he ever did," Blais said. "When you play on the wing with Sidney Crosby, you have to have a shoot-first mentality, because there's no one better creating plays than him. Jake, I'm sure, learned that very quickly.

"And that's why I'm not shocked Jake has had success. His best attribute was always his hockey sense. He picks up on situations very quickly, whether in a game or in general, quicker than most players his age. I think that's been the key to what he's been able to do with Pittsburgh."

Guentzel is the son of Mike Guentzel, currently associate head coach at the University of Minnesota. While Jake was born in Omaha in 1994, when his dad was the coach of the Omaha Lancers of the USHL, he spent most of his childhood growing up in Woodbury, Minnesota. As dad helped coach the Golden Gophers in his first of two coaching stints at the school, Jake was a stick boy for the team, a group that included current Penguins teammate Phil Kessel.

Despite an outstanding young career in the Minnesota State High School League and the USHL with the Sioux City Musketeers, Guentzel wasn't drafted until the 77th overall pick in 2013, by Pittsburgh. As one current NHL management person who was familiar with Guentzel at the time said: "There were questions about his size. But obviously, he's a late bloomer. He has a good nose for the net."

Amazingly, Guentzel has a Penguins teammate, Josh Archibald, who also was a teammate at Nebraska-Omaha. They are two of 11 Mavericks alumni to have played in the NHL.

Guentzel is two goals short of setting the NHL record for goals in a postseason.
Guentzel is two goals short of setting the NHL record for goals in a postseason.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

"He's probably one of the smartest hockey players I've ever played with," Archibald told SI.com's Alex Prewitt. "He's got eyes in the back of his head."

After Pittsburgh's Game 5 victory, the kid who started the season playing for the Penguins' American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, is one win away from getting his name on the Stanley Cup—and, quite possibly, his name on the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs' most valuable player.

All it took was more of a selfish attitude. Well, not quite like that, maybe. To Blais, however, that's kind of how it had to be.

"If it got through to Jake that 'this is what it will take for me to be successful at the next level,' then that's how he'd approach it. That's what he'll do, because he always wanted so badly to succeed. He was always in my office, asking how he could be a better player," Blais said.

"Did I think he'd look this good, so soon? I might have to plead the Fifth on that one. But nobody is happier for his success."

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