PITTSBURGH — So good he has been invited to the postgame podium twice through two games of the Stanley Cup Final, Jake Guentzel’s letting most his talking take place on the ice.
The confident but very, very soft-spoken rookie scored two more giant goals Wednesday night to lift the Pittsburgh Penguins to another playoff win and put the club within two wins of back-to-back championships for the second time in franchise history.
One game after Guentzel scored the winning goal in the Final’s opener, the 22-year-old from Woodbury encored with the winner once more during a 4-1 win over the Nashville Predators to continue to climb up the Penguins’ folklore charts.
“Gosh, he’s been good,” said veteran Matt Cullen, who made his NHL debut when Guentzel was 3. “Obviously the puck’s going in and he’s making great plays to score goals, but … he’s an all-around player. He’s finishing so well right now, but he does everything. He’s just been so clutch for us.”
Guentzel, who tied the game in the first period and is flirting with Conn Smythe Trophy contention with the likes of Evgeni Malkin, scored 10 seconds into the third period — the fastest playoff goal to start a period in Penguins history. That goal was the first of three straight by the Penguins in a 3:18 span to snap a 1-1 tie, rattle the Predators and earn Pekka Rinne an early exit.
Already the Penguins’ record holder in rookie points, Guentzel leads the NHL with 12 goals to leapfrog Jeremy Roenick and Brad Marchand for the second-most playoff goals in NHL history by a rookie. He’s now two behind former North Star Dino Ciccarelli’s all-time rookie record.
Guentzel has 19 points, two short of Ciccarelli’s 1981 rookie record and the most points by a U.S.-born rookie in NHL history. Guentzel was born in Omaha, Neb., but moved to Minnesota at three months old.
He also leads the league with five game-winning goals, a new NHL rookie record.
How’s he handling the limelight?
“It’s crazy. You can’t even put into words how it feels,” Guentzel said. “But we know the ultimate goal is two more wins.”
The series moves to Nashville with Game 3 bound to be a party Saturday.
“We’re going to win the next game and we’ll go from there,” Predators defenseman P.K. Subban vowed.
However, of the 50 teams that have previously taken a 2-0 series lead since the Final went to the best-of-seven format in 1939, 45 went on to win the Cup, including last year’s Penguins. The all-time series record of home teams sweeping Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Final is 34-3 (. 919).
“It’s going to be electric,” Cullen, a former Predator, said of what to expect in Nashville. “It’s a pretty passionate fan base, and you see the energy in the building, it’s loud and they feed off it. It’s going to be a challenge.”
Young Swedish rookie Pontus Aberg scored a highlight-reel goal to give Nashville a 1-0 first-period lead, but less than four minutes later, Guentzel, a former Hill-Murray standout, found a hole while backhanding Conor Sheary’s rebound.
After a scoreless second period, Guentzel, just 10 seconds into the third, buried a juicy Bryan Rust rebound to ignite the crowd. A little more than three minutes later, the wheels fell off for Nashville when Scott Wilson and Malkin scored 15 seconds apart.
Coach Mike Sullivan said cutting Guentzel’s ice time recently allowed him to get a “second wind” after going eight games without a goal. He has scored three times in two games to snap that drought.
“He’s pretty a quiet guy,” captain and stallmate Sidney Crosby said of Guentzel. “He’s got that feistiness, he competes hard. He’s not the biggest guy, but he plays bigger than he is. He’s got great skills. His skill set combined with the way he works allows him to get the chances he does.”
Rinne, who allowed four goals on 11 shots in Game 1, is 0-7-2 against Pittsburgh as a starter in his career and has given up four or more goals in six of those starts.
“Pekka has been excellent for us all year long,” coach Peter Laviolette said.