Dunlap: Guentzel’s Improbable Story Is Incredible

PITTSBURGH (93-7 The Fan) – They searched and searched and searched.

I mean, how many times have we heard it through the years, the continuous refrain: “The Penguins need to get a winger for Sidney Crosby.”

If I heard it once, I heard it 200,000,000,000 times.

“Sid needs to play with a winger who can keep up with him.”

And when someone says, “keep up with him” they mean matching his footspeed, his hockey acumen and his ability to see a play and the entire ice before things come into focus for the other players out there.

Who in the world would have thought that guy would be Jake Guentzel, a 22-year-old rookie (who looks like he’s 16) who was a third-round pick of the Penguins and in March 2016 was still playing college hockey for Nebraska-Omaha?

But it has been.

Oh my, how it has been.

Guentzel has scored nine goals and notched five assists in his first 12 playoff games. He’s scored the game-winning goal three times in his first dozen playoff games; some guys play years and crave scoring just one of those type of goals.

Man, what a wave this young man is riding — right there alongside Crosby on his wing. Such a proposition, flanking the best player in the world, isn’t always as easy as it seems, but Guentzel has meshed perfectly.

There have been a ton of guys through the years to play on a line with Sid. There were guys such as Recchi and LeClair and Colby Armstrong and Ryan Malone. You had Palffy who played alongside Sid and it never seemed to click the way it could have to make the music the Penguins envisioned — same thing with Miroslav Satan. Then, there was the whole Marian Hossa situation that this town knows chapter and verse and doesn’t need to be rehashed, as he was thought to be the long-term answer as that guy alongside Sid. Instead, Hossa became one of the few humans this half-century to view Detroit as a destination and go to that city willingly.

Enough of the past, though.

Back to what is going on right now.

Look at the pass Guentzel tossed to Bryan Rust to open the scoring in the decisive Game 7 victory against the Capitals on Wednesday night. He showed the patience of a saint as he allowed Crosby (who was being hounded by Matt Niskanen) to flow through the play before feathering it deftly to Rust in the slot. It was the kind of imperturbability generally showed by a veteran, not a guy who has all of 40 regular-season NHL games of experience. But, nonetheless, the moment has never been too big for Guentzel.

Now go back and rewind the play about 15 seconds before the goal. Guentzel absorbed a crushing hit in the offensive zone from Niskanen that put him on his wallet.

He didn’t pout or whine for a penalty.

He didn’t take a moment and slowly get up like so many do.

Guentzel didn’t let the hit — again a crushing one — derail him on that shift of work.

Instead, he immediately sprung to his feet, followed the puck and found space where he would eventually re-gather the puck and set up Rust.  It was the kind of hustle play he has been making since he arrived in the NHL.

It was the kind of hustle play Crosby would make.

It seems like the kind of play that is the reason why Crosby — a player who can be and should be picky about his linemates — has found a ton of comfort playing with the 22-year-old Guentzel.

Colin Dunlap is a featured columnist at CBSPittsburgh.com. He can also be heard weekdays from 5:40 a.m. to 10 a.m. on Sports Radio 93-7 “The Fan.” You can e-mail him at colin.dunlap@cbsradio.com. Check out his bio here.

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