PITTSBURGH – It should surprise no one that the Pittsburgh Penguins, like most NHL teams, have a distinct hierarchy. Their leadership group is solid and undisputed and includes arguably the best player in the world (Sidney Crosby), one of the most underrated players of his generation (Evgeni Malkin) and a future Hall of Fame defenseman (Kris Letang).
And while there are few significant signs of decline, the fact of the matter is that Crosby will be 31 this summer, Malkin will be 32 in the off-season and Letang just turned 31. There is no disputing they are the epicenter of this team. But seeing what goalie Matt Murray and uber playoff performer Jake Guentzel have done in their short times in the NHL, it has to be encouraging to the organization that two 23-year-old players have begun taking some ownership over the Penguins and their success.
Think about it. Neither one of them has ever endured the experience of losing a playoff series. And both are sticking their stakes in the ground, at least to this point in their careers, as middling regular-season players who morph into beast mode once the calendar turns to April. And that was no more on display than it was in Game 4 of the Penguins 3-1 win over the Washington Capitals in their second-round playoff series Thursday night. Guentzel scored twice in the game and Murray stopped 23 of 24 shots to put the brakes on a two-game playoff losing streak.
We’re not even halfway through the playoffs and there’s no guarantee the Penguins will win this series, but Guentzel has emerged as the early frontrunner for the Conn Smythe Trophy. He has at least a point in nine of the Penguins 10 playoff games this spring, and with 10 goals and 21 points, is the first player in 30 years to register 20 or more points in 10 playoff games. And with 42 points in 35 career playoff games, Guentzel is emerging as one of those rare players who is actually better in the post-season than the regular season.
“I just think he’s a real good hockey player,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan, trying to explain the Guentzel anomaly. “He’s competitive. I think he embraces the important moments. He went on a similar run last year during the course of the playoffs, so it isn’t anything he hasn’t done before. He’s taken his game to another level once again.”
Sullivan pointed to the chemistry that Guentzel and Crosby share as linemates, saying they think the game on the same level. Watching Guentzel turn Capitals defenseman Dmitri Orlov inside out before setting Crosby up for a tap-in in Game 3 certainly makes it difficult to dispute that notion. But Guentzel is not afraid to go to the difficult areas, which he did when he scored in Game 4, only to be rewarded with a dirty crosscheck in the back from Orlov that came dangerously close to having his teeth bashed into the goalpost.
“For an undersized guy he plays with a whole lot of courage,” Sullivan said. “He goes to the battle areas. Look at a lot of the goals he gets. They’re two feet from the blue paint and he has the hand-eye coordination, the stick skills and the courage to go to those areas and if you look at how goals are being scored in the playoffs, a lot of the goals are being scored on deflections, rebounds…they’re hard goals. And he has the courage and the talent level and stick skills to thrive in that area of the rink.”
After giving up four goals on just 22 shots in Game 3, Murray essentially called himself out and said he had to be better. And there has rarely been a time in his career when he has not followed up a sub-par performance with a monster one.
“He’s a real mature kid,” Sullivan said of Murray. “Matt has great perspective. He self-assesses very well. He knows when he thinks he can be better. He tends to respond the right way in those situations.”
At some point, this incredible run for the Penguins is going to end. It might even be this spring. Then again, would anyone be gob smacked if this team managed to win its third straight Stanley Cup? When it does end, though, the Penguins will be confident that their teams will still be in good hands when their superstars ultimately and finally go quietly into the night.
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