PITTSBURGH – “SHOOOOT,” Pittsburgh Penguins fans implored. Jake Guentzel did and sent the Steel City and his own family into an absolute frenzy Monday night.
With a crowd of 18,000-plus and especially mom, dad and both his brothers urging him to let it rip, the Woodbury-raised rookie and NHL’s leading goal scorer in the playoffs ended an extraordinary stretch of 37 minutes without a Penguins shot by scoring the winning goal as Pittsburgh dodged a big-time bullet with a 5-3 victory over the Nashville Predators in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Guentzel’s 10th goal of the playoffs saved the Penguins’ bacon after they blew a 3-0 lead when they were unable to muster a shot from Nick Bonino’s fluky goal with 17 seconds left way back in the first period all the way to Guentzel’s goal with 3:17 left in the third.
Guentzel took Matt Cullen’s pass near the blue line, streaked to the right faceoff dot, used the defenseman as a screen and snapped a shot from 23 feet away to stun Pekka Rinne, who very much looked like a goalie who hadn’t seen a puck in an eternity. The goal came right in front of the corner where father, Mike, mom, Sally, and older brothers, Ryan and Gabe, sat before leaping in jubilation.
“We’re jacked. It was like, ‘Wow,’ ” said Mike Guentzel, the associate Gophers men’s hockey coach, sitting outside the Penguins’ family room. “You know what, that’s a goal scorer’s goal right there. That’s Jake. He’s always been that way. I don’t want to boast, but he’s always been that way. He scores. I have buddy sitting in Woodbury right now that just said, ‘That son of a gun did it again. He did it again.’ That’s just Jake.’ ”
It has been an exceptional ride for Guentzel, the former Hill-Murray star who scored 21 goals and 21 assists in 33 American Hockey League games for Wilkes-Barre and another 16 goals and 17 assists in 40 regular-season games for Pittsburgh. He scored two goals in his NHL debut back in November, including on his first shot on his first shift. He scored eight goals in his first nine playoff games.
Yet, Guentzel’s winner snapped an eight-game goal drought. He didn’t score in the seven-game Eastern Conference finals despite a plethora of chances and was starting to worry he was going to be removed from the lineup. With Patric Hornqvist back from an injury Monday, Guentzel moved from Sidney Crosby’s wing to the fourth line with Cullen.
Teammates like defenseman Justin Schultz and goalie Matt Murray said after the victory that it’s amazing how nothing fazes the 22-year-old Guentzel, but in actuality, Mike Guentzel said: “Inwardly to us, he was frustrated, saying, ‘I might get scratched, I might do this, I might to do that.’ I told him the other night, ‘Listen, you’re the leading goal scorer in the playoffs, just relax and play. This guy [coach Mike Sullivan] likes you.”
In fact, Sullivan had pulled the young Jake aside Sunday and told him, “Just do your thing.”
Despite his son’s slump, Mike Guentzel had a good feeling before the game because he said any time mom, dad and both brothers attended a Penguins game together, “and it could be six games, Jake’s never not scored. It’s like karma. Just karma.”
So, after the Penguins blew a 3-0 lead on goals by Ryan Ellis, Colton Sissons and Frederick Gaudreau, Guentzel’s heroics came to fruition late in the third.
“What a play by Matt Cullen,” Mike Guentzel said. “Just a soft, little bump to the middle and Jake comes in and just changed his shooting lane and just snaps it in. Guys make plays, and Jake made a play. It’s surreal. He’s 22, and he’s playing in the NHL and he just scored a game-winning goal in the Stanley Cup Final.”
It was a continuation of what Jake Guentzel calls a “crazy year” since walking into the Penguins locker room in November and seeing his stall was right next to Captain Crosby.
“You don’t want to mess anything up for him,” Guenztel said, laughing. “It’s scary at the start.”
Guentzel couldn’t be more excited to share this with his family. Usually, when his dad comes to town, he will actually bunk up with Jake in the hotel room he has been living in.
“My dad’s fired up,” Jake said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him this intense in hockey. This has been a dream come true. As a kid, this is what you dream about. You’re just trying to make the most of it every day and soak it all in because this doesn’t happen very often.”