It is happening again this season with another impact rookie. That rookie: Jake Guentzel.
After scoring the game-winning goal in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday night, helping the Penguins escape with a win in one of the crazier playoff games in recent memory, he played the role of hero again on Wednesday in the Penguins’ 4-1 Game 2 win by scoring two more goals, including another game-winner.
He now leads the NHL with 12 goals this postseason (three more than any other player) and an almost unbelievable five game-winning goals.
His first goal on Monday was the result of some good fortune as he able to jam a loose puck through the slimmest of openings along the goal line, a play that Guentzel described as just trying to put the puck on net and seeing what happens.
Later, he opened the floodgates to start the third period just 10 seconds in when he pounced on a fat rebound in the slot and drilled it into an empty net, kicking off a wild four-minute stretch where the Penguins scored three goals to put the game away and send them to Nashville with a 2-0 series lead.
For Guentzel, this latest goal-scoring outburst couldn’t have come at a better time for both him and the Penguins.
After starting the playoffs with 10 goals in his first 11 games, he went through an eight-game goal-scoring drought that nearly made him a healthy scratch heading into Game 1 of this series when Patric Hornqvist was ready to return to the lineup.
Instead, coach Mike Sullivan opted to stick with him while also praising his overall play even without the goals.
On Wednesday, Sullivan talked about the discussions he had with Guentzel were like during that drought, and how he wanted Guentzel to focus on things other than just scoring goals.
“He is a conscientious kid,” said Sullivan. “He is a pleasure to coach, and we just talked about just playing the game the right way. Focussing on details shift after shift. Not being concerned on scoring goals and making plays. If he plays the game the right way, winning puck battles, the wall plays, gaining lines, taking what the game gives you, then when the play is there his instincts will take over because he is a real talented kid.”
Sullivan also talked about wanting to limit Guentzel’s minutes given that this this season his first taste of pro hockey coming out of college and not being used to the demands of an NHL schedule.
“We just shifted the focus a little bit, trying to cut his minutes,” said Sullivan. “He was playing a lot of minutes. This is his first year pro, coming out of college where he is not used to playing the NHL schedule and the demands of that, particularly a long playoff run. So we just thought if we cut his minutes we would get more productive minutes.
“He seems to be getting a second wind, he is getting his legs back, I think his confidence is there. You can see how good of a player he is, we can move him up and down the lineup. He had a good game tonight so we moved him up with Sid.”
All of that seems to have worked and Guentzel is not only a huge reason the Penguins are up 2-0 in the series, but he is also starting to insert himself into the Conn Smythe discussion.
Because Guentzel was a third-round draft pick four years ago, and is a smaller, undersized player and didn’t start the year in the NHL he is going to get looked at as “coming out of nowhere” this postseason. But including his time in the American Hockey League to start the year, his time with the big club in the regular season and the playoffs to this point he has now scored 49 goals in 94 games this season.
He has already proven to be an impact player. One more for a team that is already loaded with them.