WASHINGTON — It’s high time we found out: What in the world happens to Jake Guentzel at this time of year?
The Pittsburgh Penguins winger swears he’s not napping more. He hasn’t changed up his playlist. Guentzel’s even eating the same food he did during the regular season. “You just try and stick to the same thing,” the soft-spoken, baby-faced 23-year-old promised, after a Saturday afternoon practice.
Well, none of this explains why the kid from Omaha, Neb., is leading the playoff scoring race.
After a career-high 48-point regular season in his sophomore year, Guentzel is now pacing all players when it matters most, having delivered his seventh goal in as many games on Friday, which stood up as the winner in Pittsburgh’s Round 2 opener against Washington.
In the last two games alone, Guentzel has put up eight points, good for a total of 16. On a team that boasts three of the league’s top-10 regular season high-scorers — Evgeni Malkin (who could be back in the lineup for Game 2 on Sunday afternoon, after missing Game 1 with an injury), Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel — it’s the winger with the wispy blonde beard who’s leading the way on the scoresheet.
Guentzel’s teammate, veteran defenceman Kris Letang, has a theory on why it is that Guentzel is so productive in these high stakes games. “I guess he doesn’t like the cold weather,” Letang said, with a grin. “He just shows up whenever it starts to be nice outside.”
He was joking, but hey, maybe Letang has a point.
Guentzel has played in seven games this post-season, he’s averaging 2.29 points per contest, and he has one more point than his linemate and captain, Crosby, who also has seven goals. Guentzel’s shooting percentage is 35 per cent in these playoffs, compared to a career success rate of 15 per cent, so he’s obviously converting on more chances.
And maybe we all should have expected this surge, since in his rookie season, Guentzel, a third-round pick in 2013, had 21 points in Pittsburgh’s 25-game run to the Stanley Cup last year.
Still, did anyone expect this? Well, probably not.
Fellow winger Conor Sheary has one word to describe his buddy’s playoff production: “Insane.”
It really has been. Four of Guentzel’s goals came one after the other in Game 6 against Philadelphia to close out that series, and he’s only the third Penguin in history to put up four goals in one post-season tilt.
Sheary shook his head while he thought about his teammate’s playoff performances, and then he added: “It’s weird. I mean, last year when he came in [as a rookie] he scored I think it was 15 goals [it was 13, but close enough] and everyone was like, ‘Holy crap, was it a one-time thing?’
“But it seems at this point that it’s not going to be that way. He really is a gamer. He plays his best when the stakes are high.”
Well, a lot of guys do. So how else to explain it? “I think playoffs, everyone ramps up their game,” Sheary said, “and maybe his ramp-up is a little bit higher than anyone else’s?”
Maybe. Add that to the growing list of theories.
Guentzel, who sits between Crosby and Malkin in the visitor’s dressing room, is not what you’d call loud or particularly chatty with reporters. Letang calls him “a little, shy kid,” so you’re not going to get much out of him when it comes to explaining his playoff prowess, beyond him equating his goals to puck luck and the fact he plays alongside elite players like Crosby.
Told of Letang’s theory, that he plays best when the weather warms up, Guentzel laughed.
“Yeah, I don’t know,” he said. “Nothing much changes, you’re just more excited.”
Oh, so that’s it: Guentzel is a playoff scoring machine because he is more excited this time of year. Case closed.