PITTSBURGH — Jake Guentzel was surrounded. Boxed in, really.
Three Blue Jackets were within a stick's reach of the Pittsburgh Penguins rookie as Guentzel stood just off to the side of the Columbus goal. It was overtime of Game 3 of a physical first-round series.
Guentzel did have one advantage: All three Blue Jackets had their eyes fixed on Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby behind the net. Like everyone else, Guentzel wasn't sure where Crosby was going, but he had a hunch. So the 22-year-old with the shock of blonde hair and the uncanny ability to find space where none seems to exist drifted to his left.
A second later, the puck was on Guentzel's stick. A flick of Guentzel's wrists and it was in the back of the net to complete Guentzel's first NHL hat trick and give the defending Stanley Cup champions a hammerlock on a series they would win in five games. The Penguins face rival Washington in the Eastern Conference semifinals starting Thursday, thanks in no small part to the kid with the boyish face and all-grown-up game.
Asked to explain how at 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds he managed to find the 6 inches of open ice in the middle of a traffic jam for the winner against Columbus, Guentzel shrugged.
"You play with (Crosby), you just try to find the soft area and make the play," said the kid from Omaha, Nebraska.
It's something Guentzel has done with remarkable regularity from the day the Penguins brought him up from their American Hockey League affiliate in November. He scored twice against the New York Rangers in his NHL debut during a five-game cameo with the big club and kept it going when he was recalled for good in January.
The NHL's leading goal scorer in the playoffs heading into the second round isn't Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Ovechkin or Connor McDavid. It's the son of a coach from the middle of flyover country who hasn't been overwhelmed by the prospect of sharing a line with the best player in the world or intimidated by his sport's biggest stage.
Guentzel became the first rookie since Hall of Famer Maurice Richard in 1944 to score five goals in his first four playoff games. Yes, it is weird to have your name mentioned in the same breath as hockey royalty. Guentzel just calls it a "crazy journey" though his teammates insist he's underselling himself.
"He's able to adjust pretty quickly," Crosby said. "Different situations, different plays that he sees that maybe don't go right the first time, but the next time you can tell he's one step ahead."
Coach Mike Sullivan calls it "hockey IQ," a combination of instincts and innate ability that is difficult to quantify but easy to see when Guentzel is on the ice.
Playing with Crosby isn't for everyone. The two-time MVP sees the game differently than others with an eye for creativity that can sometimes be impossible to anticipate. Yet Guentzel clicked with Crosby almost instantly when he became part of the "Sid and the Kids" line along with 24-year-old Conor Sheary during a West Coast road trip in mid-March. Guentzel finished the regular season with 16 goals and 17 assists in 40 games before finding another level against Columbus.
"When a guy like Sid can make the passes that he makes, if you have the ability to find that open area, you'll usually get found," said Sheary, who was in the same position a year ago when he thrived as a rookie alongside Crosby as the Penguins captured the franchise's fourth Stanley Cup. "He has the smarts and the IQ and the skill to score and be alongside him."
Guentzel isn't quite sure how to explain his understanding of the game. He doesn't watch a ton of film. He's not into analytics. If anything, it might be a little bit of osmosis and a competitive drive that seems at odds with his easy smile. His father, Mike, is an assistant coach at Minnesota. Older brothers Ryan (Notre Dame) and Gabe (Colorado College) both played collegiately.
"I've been around it my whole life," said Guentzel, taken by the Penguins in the third round of the 2013 draft. "It was one of my biggest assets growing up."
And now Guentzel finds himself one of the biggest assets for the Penguins as they try to become the first team in nearly 20 years to win back-to-back Cups. He's one of the few new faces in the mix when Pittsburgh and Washington meet in a rematch of last year's taut conference semifinal the Penguins captured in six games.
Yes, the adrenaline will be pumping. Then the puck will drop and it'll be the same game he's always played, the one that thrives on speed, intelligence and a dash of fearlessness.
"His success isn't a fluke," said Penguins forward Chris Kunitz, who has carved out a 13-year career banging in front of the net. "Jake's a guy who finds himself in the right spot a lot of the time. It doesn't matter if you've only been in the league for a couple of games or whatever. Size and stature don't really matter ... if you can find the soft pockets, you're going to have success."
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