NASHVILLE – Other than his friends and very ecstatic family, Jake Guentzel’s biggest fan might be living in Michigan.
In 1981 as a 21-year-old, Dino Ciccarelli set an NHL rookie record by scoring 14 postseason goals during the North Stars’ run to the Stanley Cup Final, where they ran into the New York Islanders and their dynasty in the making. The Hall of Famer’s mark has stood for 36 years but is in danger of cracking after Guentzel scored his league-high 13th goal — and fourth of the Stanley Cup Final — Saturday night for the Pittsburgh Penguins during a Game 3 loss to the Nashville Predators.
“I hope he does break the record,” Ciccarelli said by phone over the weekend. “He has great instincts. He has a knack for the net.”
In fact, even though Guentzel and Ciccarelli are different style players, Ciccarelli said the Woodbury-raised Guentzel’s situation reminds him of his own in 1981.
“You see these kids get called up, sometimes they’ll be lucky to get a few shifts here or there,” said Ciccarelli, now 57. “With me, when Glen Sonmor was my coach, they didn’t just put me on the third or fourth line. They stuck me right on the top line with Bobby Smith and Steve Payne, sometimes Neal Broten, and one of the two power plays, so I had a good chance for success. And that’s what’s happening with this guy.
“I was watching the other day, he was on a power play with [Sidney] Crosby and [Evgeni] Malkin and [Phil] Kessel. I’m sure he’s looking around going, ‘Holy cow.’ You’re going to get chances automatically and I’m sure he thinks that way. He gets to the open spots. It’s nice to see him having success and having fun. It reminds me a lot of me in 1981.”
Guentzel admittedly doesn’t know a whole lot about Ciccarelli other than that he played for the North Stars. After nine years in Minnesota, he was traded to Washington in March 1989, 5 ½ years before Guentzel was born.
Ciccarelli played for a North Stars team that won games by scoring four, five, six and even nine goals some nights. Over that playoff run, the North Stars averaged 4 ½ goals per game. It’s a faster, tighter-checking, lower-scoring NHL these days. The Penguins are averaging 3.09 goals per game, which puts into perspective the type of postseason Guentzel has had.
Ciccarelli scored 55 goals for the North Stars in 1981-82 and 52 in 1986-87. His complete statistics are here.
It was also a wee bit nastier back in the early ’80s.
Ciccarelli’s North Stars opened against the big, bad Boston Bruins, who tried to set the tone against Minnesota a few months earlier with a game-opening, bench-clearing brawl.
“That’s when the Bruins were tough,” Ciccarelli said. “They had guys like Stan Jonathan, Al Secord, Mike Milbury, Terry O’Reilly, they had quite the lineup. You’re hearing how that first series would be a war, and sure enough it was filled with fights and it was a welcome to the playoffs, welcome-to-the-NHL moment for me for sure.
“It woke me up like, ‘You better be ready to play or you’re going to get the snot beaten out of you here.’ I think it got us ready because as a team we got our nose in there and the guys stuck together. That’s what made the run successful.”
With the Penguins up 2-1 against the Predators heading into Monday night’s Game 4, Guentzel, 22, looks as if he will become the first rookie to lead the NHL in playoff goals since the NHL took control of the Cup in 1926. He has four more than anybody in this series. He already has set an NHL record with five game-winning goals. Guentzel is not only a goal from tying Ciccarelli, but he is also a point from tying Ciccarelli and Ville Leino for the most points by a rookie (21).
Guentzel’s 13 goals and 20 points this postseason are already the most ever by a United States-born player.
It has been a remarkable run for Guentzel, a 2013 third-round draft pick. In 95 pro games this season between AHL Wilkes-Barre and Pittsburgh, Guentzel has scored 50 goals. Not bad for somebody who averaged 36 games the past three seasons for the University of Nebraska Omaha. In fact, in 108 NCAA games, Guentzel scored 40 goals.
Out of nowhere
Ciccarelli, like the smallish Guentzel, had to fight the stature rap his whole career, but he went undrafted because he broke his femur in the 1978 playoffs for the London Knights. This came after he scored a league-best 72 goals during the regular season — two more than Wayne Gretzky had for Sault Ste. Marie.
“It’s my only claim to fame over Gretz,” Ciccarelli said, laughing.
Everything fell apart for Ciccarelli after the devastating injury, but North Stars GM Lou Nanne loved him and threw him a life line.
“Nobody wants an injured horse and the next two years were tough to get on the mend, but that’s where Louie came in and took a chance on me and figured he could score goals before he broke his leg, why not after?” Ciccarelli said. “I’m forever grateful he signed me.”
In 1980-81, Ciccarelli scored 32 goals in 48 games for Oklahoma City, then another 18 goals in 32 games for the North Stars before the 14 in the playoffs. It just propelled his career.
“I bet [Guentzel’s] having the time of his life,” said Ciccarelli, who now owns a couple sports bars that double for dance clubs in the Detroit area. “It’s nice to be put in certain situations and have the city going crazy. Just like [Guentzel], I was getting the ice time and then doing what came naturally.”