Penguins hope ‘Playoff Jake’ Guentzel can continue to produce if Sidney Crosby misses time


The question seems fair.

Can Jake Guentzel produce goals at his customary high level if his high-profile, Hall of Fame center isn’t available to him?

On Wednesday night, Guentzel didn’t wait long to provide an answer.

Try, two shifts.

Guentzel scored the second time he took the ice after Crosby’s retreat to the visitors’ locker room at Madison Square Garden because of a presumed head injury suffered during Game 5 of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ first-round playoff series against the New York Rangers.

Can Guentzel score if Crosby isn’t setting him up? For all of 66 seconds Wednesday, he couldn’t. But on the 67th second of his time without Crosby, Guentzel took a feed from new/old center Evgeni Malkin and ripped a shot that beat Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin short side.

In some ways, it was wholly unfair to ponder if Guentzel could score without Crosby. After all, accumulating 194 NHL goals (regular season and playoffs) isn’t by accident and can’t be completely attributable to deft setups.

But at the same time, each of Guentzel’s first five goals over the first four games of this series were assisted by Crosby. To so quickly get one without his assistance helps put some minds at ease amongst the Penguins, who might have to play Game 6 (and beyond) without their captain and with Malkin as the No. 1 center.

“(Malkin) is a superstar player. When you get a chance to play with those guys, it’s a unique opportunity,” Guentzel said. “We’ve played together in the past. He’s a guy that likes the puck on his stick and is just another unreal passer. For me, it’s just trying to find open spots and get him the puck as much as possible.”

While coach Mike Sullivan could elect for a different lineup configuration before the 7 p.m. faceoff Friday at PPG Paints Arena, for the final period-plus of Game 5 he merely bumped each of his centers up a line. Malkin was between Guentzel and right wing Bryan Rust.

Another shoo-in for future Hall of Fame status, Malkin is a reasonable replacement center for Guentzel, who headed into Thursday night’s games tied for the NHL lead in postseason goals with seven. All seven of Guentzel’s tallies are at even-strength; that’s two more than any other player.

“He’s a really smart player,” Sullivan said, “but he’s also a guy that takes a lot of pride in his own personal game, and he understands how important he is to this team and his contributions and what the expectation is.”

That was the case 50 weeks ago, when Guentzel publicly took the blame for a third consecutive Penguins opening-round playoffs ouster.

“I let a lot of people down,” Guentzel said in the aftermath of a third straight postseason in which he scored exactly one goal.

Guentzel vowed to spend the summer getting stronger, rationalizing that he did not want to be worn down come the playoffs again.

Whatever Guentzel did last summer, it worked. He is off to one of the greatest five-game offensive stretches to open a postseason in Penguins history. No player had ever scored in even the Penguins’ first four games of a playoff run before. The only three streaks of games with a goal longer during any point of a postseason for the Penguins all came from Mario Lemieux: in 1991, ’96 and ’89, respectively, when he had goal streaks of seven, seven and six games.

Jaromir Jagr (1996 and 2000) and Kevin Stevens (1991) are the only other Penguins players with five-game goal streaks in the playoffs.

“I know what to expect a little more, and I’m a little more mature,” Guentzel said of his sixth NHL postseason. “The last couple of years I was trying to get in and do some different things that weren’t my game, and I think I’m just trying to get back to (my game). Just worry about hockey and not worry about the other little things.”

Even with the duds of the past three postseasons, Guentzel’s 33 playoff goals since he entered the league are second-most in the NHL in that time. Guentzel’s playoff rate of 0.59 goals per game equates to a 48-goal regular season that’s even better than his impressive regular-season career rate of 162 goals in 375 games (0.43 per game; a 35-goal pace).

Guentzel scores at a rate that is 37% higher in the postseason, when for most people, goals are more difficult to come by.

“‘Regular-season Jake is terrific,” Sullivan said. “I think ‘Playoff Jake’ is a whole other level.

“That’s what makes him a special player that he is. He’s a really competitive kid. And he’s shown an ability to play his best in a high-stakes environment. He’s a Stanley Cup champion and he was a big part of it.”

Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at or via Twitter .