Pittsburgh Penguins center Jake Guentzel has played in just 32 career playoff games, yet he already has scored 20 goals. His latest came with just under eight minutes gone in the third period in Thursday night’s 3-2 Game 1 win over Washington, a tally that completed the Capitals’ meltdown when he tipped in the game-winner under the right arm of goaltender Braden Holtby.
It only seemed appropriate that Guentzel’s deflection came on a shot near the boards by Sidney Crosby. At first glance, it had looked as if Crosby — who erased what had been a 2-0 Capitals lead with his own goal off a Guentzel assist earlier in the third period, tying the game — had blasted the go-ahead goal past Holtby. Instead it was Guentzel who did what he has done so many times over the past two seasons while skating alongside the planet’s best player — he positioned himself in front of the net and looked for an opportunity to get a stick on Crosby’s shot.
“When you’re playing with him, you’re just trying to find those open areas,” said Guentzel, who led all players with 13 goals in last year’s playoffs and already has seven in seven games this postseason. “He takes up a lot of guys to cover him, so you can get a little more extra ice. It’s definitely fun because you just look for him and the puck.”
It had been a frustrating start in Thursday’s Game 1 for Guenztel, who was coming off a historic four-goal, five-point performance in his team’s first-round clincher over Philadelphia in Game 6. That came in the wake of Evgeny Malkin’s apparent leg injury earlier in that series, which also kept the star forward out Thursday night — yet the Capitals still expected to have their hands full with the 23-year-old Guentzel cycling alongside Crosby.
Pittsburgh had plenty of opportunities through the first two periods, including on a 31-foot wrist shot by Guentzel that hit the crossbar early in the second period. Those misses, compounded by stunning goals by Evgeny Kuznetsov 17 seconds into the first period and Alex Ovechkin 28 seconds into the third period, left the Penguins in a position they hadn’t been in often throughout these playoffs.
Yet this was another opportunity for Guentzel to watch Crosby and how he directed his line after the team went down. Pittsburgh has tried plenty of pairings with Crosby over his career, plenty of which haven’t worked. Some players might have difficulty fitting in alongside a superstar who is known for his obsessive preparation and meticulousness. Yet Guentzel has not missed a beat.
“Just got to stay with it. Right from Sid, he led the way for us, and it’s right down the lineup,” he said of his thinking after falling down 2-0 Thursday night. After he had set up Crosby for a goal to tie the game just 5:20 into the third period, he waited just 2:28 for his chance to return the favor off a Crosby shot from the boards.
“He competes hard. That’s the biggest thing. And he’s got a ton of skill and hockey sense and all the things that come with it,” Crosby said of Guentzel. “But he goes to different areas to score.”
Crosby and Guentzel have combined for 14 goals and 17 assists in just seven playoff games this postseason, seemingly on track to become a historic tandem as Pittsburgh chases a third straight Stanley Cup. The lineup only will be bolstered should Malkin return soon, but for now, Crosby and his young understudy give Pittsburgh plenty of firepower against the Capitals.
“Playing with Sid, it makes it pretty easy and opens up a lot of space for us,” Guentzel said. “I just try to take advantage of it.”