PITTSBURGH – So let’s assume the Pittsburgh Penguins win two more games before the Nashville Predators win four and they capture their fifth Stanley Cup in franchise history. That would put them one ahead of the New York Rangers, despite the fact that the Rangers had a 41-year head start on them.
If that happens, who then wins the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player in the playoffs? Well, if I were the one choosing (and I’m not), history would be made. That’s because it would either go to Jake Guentzel, which would make him the only non-goaltender rookie to win the award, or it would be shared by Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury.
You could argue that without Guentzel’s scoring, both in terms of quantity and quality, the Penguins are not where they are today. He has scored every important goal of the Stanley Cup final and has led the charge for a quick-strike team that, despite being outshot 64-39 in the first two games of the Stanley Cup final, finds itself with an almost inexplicable 2-0 lead.
You could also argue that without Fleury stepping into the breach and carrying the Penguins through the better part of the first three rounds, they aren’t even in the Stanley Cup final. And Murray has been a major difference maker so far in the final. The chasm between him and Pekka Rinne at the other end of the ice has been the most prominent reason why the series is going the way it is. To be blunt, Murray has been as brilliant as Rinne has been terrible. For the Penguins to be able to skate out onto the ice in a big game with the confidence of having that kind of calm presence in their net is a huge advantage for them.
With his two goals in Game 2, Guentzel now has 12 in the playoffs, which is just two short of the rookie record set by Dino Ciccarelli of the Minnesota North Stars in 1981. His 19 points is good for fourth-best ever, two points behind Ciccarelli in 1981 and Ville Leino of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010. If the Penguins continue to steamroll their way through the final, the only thing that might prevent Guentzel from breaking both the overall goals and points records would be a dearth of games.
Just imagine how many points he would have had he not gone the entire Eastern Conference final without scoring a goal. He did hit the post at least six times in that series, but couldn’t seem to find any luck around the net against the Senators. It is to laugh that Penguins coach Mike Sullivan considered making him a healthy scratch for Game 1 of the final, then started him on the fourth line. He moved up to the third line for Game 2, but by the halfway point, Guentzel was riding shotgun on the top line with Sidney Crosby. Penguins coach Mike Sullivan has deliberately cut Guentzel’s ice time, citing fatigue factors. Guentzel played just 11:52 in Game 1 and 14:09 in Game 2.
“This is his first year pro, coming out of college, where he’s not used to playing the NHL schedule, and the demands of that physically, not to mention a long playoff run,” Sullivan said of Guentzel. “So we just thought if we cut his minutes, we’d get more productive minutes from him.”
That has certainly been the case. But it’s pretty clear that his skill level and his ability to finish make him a good linemate for Crosby. It would be hard to believe that tandem will be split up again in these playoffs.
“He’s really smart,” Crosby said. “He has really good hockey sense and he’s able to read the play and he’s in around the net all the time. And he knows when to kind of get out of there and find a soft area and open up for a pass. I think his hockey sense kind of allows those skills to really be shown.”
As for Murray, his 37-save victory was the 20th playoff win of his career. So cool and poised in the crease, Murray gobbled up every puck he saw and, unlike Rinne, did not allow many second-chance opportunities. Even if Rinne does rediscover his touch and improves his play tenfold, it’s hard to imagine the Penguins will lose this final if Murray continues to play as well as he has to this point. And give Sullivan credit here. He took a ton of heat for putting Murray back in the net during the Eastern Conference final after Fleury had played so well, but it was clearly the right decision, as difficult as it must have been to make.
Murray acknowledged he does get a case of the nerves before he plays, but it certainly doesn’t show. He probably doesn’t throw up before games the way Glenn Hall did, but the butterflies are there.
“I get nervous before pretty much any game,” Murray said. “Nerves is one way to put it, but a lot of excitement, too. We get to go out and play the game we love on the biggest stage.”
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