The Pittsburgh Penguins have had no shortage of injuries this season. For a good chunk of the spring, their defense was mostly composed of AHL players. In the last stretch of the regular season, the Penguins were the most injured playoff-bound team in the NHL; perhaps unsurprisingly, their injuries have continued to haunt them into the postseason.
The Penguins entered the first round of the playoffs missing their starting goaltender Matt Murray and best defender Kris Letang, as well as forwards Carl Hagelin and Chris Kunitz. Are the Penguins cursed? No one can say. But in this dark cloud of fragile players, there is a silver lining named Jake Guentzel.
The Original Call Up
Guentzel was called up to the NHL for the first time in November, where he spent a few games mostly adjusting to NHL-level play. He then made a more permanent return in January, when he was brought up as a gap-filler for other injured forwards. It quickly became clear he was going to be worth more than just as a temporary substitute for the Penguins.
Guentzel was eventually slotted into the top line alongside Sidney Crosby with the injury of winger Bryan Rust, and his place on the roster was cemented. When other Wilkes-Barre/Scranton forwards like Josh Archibald were sent back down to the minors, Guentzel remained.
He finished the regular season with 33 points in the 40 games he played. That’s an elite scoring rate of .825 points per game. The only rookies to have higher scoring rates than that were the first and second draft picks of 2016, Patrick Laine and Auston Matthews.
Becoming a First-Round MVP
For all that Guentzel benefitted the Penguins in the regular season, he’s still a relatively unknown name. After his hat trick against the Blue Jackets in Game 3 of the Penguins’ series, the Columbus Dispatch asked the question of the night: “Who is Jake Guentzel?” The Dispatch hasn’t been the only one to overlook Guentzel, who was drafted 77th overall in 2013 and only entered the NHL as a backup plan.
But observers won’t be able to overlook him for much longer. He currently leads the league in postseason goals with a whopping five in four games. The closest anyone has come to that is the Calgary Flames’ Sean Monahan with three, all the other top-ranked playoffs scorers have two.
Guentzel has so far gone above and beyond in these playoffs. Not only is he leading the league in goals, but two of his goals have been game-winners. His last one was scored in the final seconds of the Penguins’ Tuesday night loss to the Blue Jackets, easing the goal deficit to one and making the loss an easier pill to swallow.
If the team were the pick an MVP thus far in the playoffs, there would be an argument over whether the recipient should be Evgeni Malkin, who currently has eight points and two goals, or Marc-Andre Fleury, who was a big part of the Penguins’ overtime win in Game 3. But Jake Guentzel – a rookie who wasn’t even starting in the NHL at the beginning of the season – would, at the very least, be part of the discussion.
Looking on the Bright Side
Penguins’ injuries have been a huge issue all throughout this season, and they continue to be felt in the playoffs. But they allowed the Penguins to shuffle the lineup and probe just how far down their depth in the minor leagues went. We can thank that desperate process for Guentzel, who has proved to be invaluable so far this playoff run.
Julia Stumbaugh is a student at the College of William & Mary.