When the 2018 NHL Playoffs began in mid-April the Pittsburgh Penguins put themselves in a prime position to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup for the third consecutive season. A feat that has not been accomplished since the New York Islanders etched their name into the Cup an astonishing four seasons in a row from 1980-1983. The Penguins’ potential to pull off this three-peat is incredible, especially with the number of teams in today’s NHL and the amount of parity across the league.
When people think of the recent Penguins dynasty, names like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin come to mind. But you cannot talk about the team’s playoff success over the past two seasons without including Jake Guentzel.
Jake Guentzel’s Hot Start
The Penguins called Guentzel up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Pittsburgh’s AHL affiliate, on Nov. 21, 2016. He burst on to the scene scoring on the first shift of his NHL career in a game versus the New York Rangers, while also tallying another goal a few shifts later. The Omaha, Nebraska native finished the 2016-17 regular season with 33 points in 40 games played. Not bad for a mid-season call-up, although this was only the beginning of the Guentzel era in Steel City.
The NHL regular season can be a grind but playoff hockey is a war. The level of expectation increases for the world’s best players, while the style of play becomes more physical and younger players gain experience for the future. It seems nobody told Guentzel, as the 22-year-old talent recorded five goals in the opening round against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2016-17 playoffs, including a game-winning overtime goal to complete the hat-trick in Game 3. The second round narrative was the same as Guentzel had four goals and four assists to lead both teams in points in their series against the Washington Capitals.
Pittsburgh survived the Ottawa Senators who were bent on an upset, defeating them in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals, but Guentzel was a non-factor. For the first time that season, he struggled and played like a rookie but like all top players, he regrouped for the Finals.
He netted the game-winner late in the third period of Game 1 against the Nashville Predators as the Penguins went on to hoist the Stanley Cup in Game 6 a week later. Guentzel led the 2017 playoffs in goals scored (13) and finished fourth in points (21) while also tying the rookie playoff record for most points in a single playoffs.
2017-18 Regular Season
For Guentzel, the 2017-18 regular season was a step below his normal point production. He dressed in all 82 games, but only managed to secure 48 points. After beginning the year with Crosby on the first-line, he struggled. His two-way game was called into question and he was even demoted to the third-line and benched in mid-February. The rocky start included scoring droughts of 8 and 10 games. The lack of performance could be boiled down to confidence, something he lacked during his struggle-ridden regular season.
Everybody knows that it’s not how you start a season, it’s how you finish it. Head coach Mike Sullivan put his top unit back together in late February, with Crosby centering Guentzel on the left and Patric Hornqvist on the right. The line got back on the right track and Guentzel’s numbers improved. In the final 18 games on the regular season, he recorded 10 points and generated enough chemistry with his linemates to spark another deep postseason run.
New Playoffs, Same Guentzel
Regular season stats prove one’s talent in the regular season, but if you don’t succeed in the playoffs then nobody will care. As the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs began, there were a lot of question marks surrounding the club. One of the problems was Guentzel, their unsung hero a postseason ago. Was 2017 a fluke and did he just benefit from being a passenger on the top-line with the world’s best player?
Well, those rumors were quickly put to rest. Guentzel leads the playoffs in points (21) and goals (10) and is tied for second in assists (11). Even more impressive is his two-way game. Although this statistic can be skewed at times, he is leading the 2018 playoffs with a plus/minus rating of plus-11.
He delivered the knockout blow to the Penguins’ cross-state rival in Game 6 of the first round series against the Philadelphia Flyers by recording four straight goals, including three in the final frame alone. If he can keep up this elevated play, he could contest Mario Lemieux’s Penguins postseason record of 44 points, set in 1991.
The 2018 NHL Playoffs have taught us one thing: Guentzel’s postseason success is no accident, as this young talent has risen to every occasion. The Penguins will have to get through a tough Eastern Conference if they want to raise the Cup in June for the third-straight season but with Guentzel deploying every trick in his bag there should be no sense of unrest for the Pittsburgh faithful.
Former Division 1 hockey player at Colgate University. Covering the New York Rangers for THW and isportsweb.com.