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Penguins rookie Guentzel embraces high stakes, gritty play

| Monday, April 17, 2017, 7:12 p.m.

No television cameras caught Mike Guentzel's reaction to his 22-year-old son's latest goal, an overtime winner Sunday that capped a hat trick in Game 3 of the Penguins' first-round series against Columbus.

That's fine by the father, whose stunned expression — right hand on his forehead, mouth agape — after Jake Guentzel scored his first NHL goal on the first shot of his first shift Nov. 21 at PPG Paints Arena survives in easy-to-find video footage on the internet.

Trust this much: Mike Guentzel, who didn't get to see his son's performance live Sunday, remains in awe. No amount of heroics against older opponents in youth hockey or winning efforts at hyper-intense family golf outings by Jake Guentzel made four goals in three playoff games and 20 goals since that November debut foreseeable.

And the father knows this much about his son: One taste of high-stakes success only increases Jake Guentzel's craving for more.

"I'm never going to say that Jake is somebody who sits in the backseat," Mike Guentzel said. "He's got that cockiness that you need to be pretty good, but he's not arrogant. And all the way through (childhood), in whatever sport, he wanted to be in big situations.

"He's a guy that if you're going to go waterskiing, he's going to try to go with two skis for five minutes, and then after that, once he's been able to get up, he says, 'OK, I'm going on one ski.' There's no concern in his mind that he's going to fall, get hurt, whatever. If he's on a tube, it's, 'Let's go faster. Let's try this and try that.' He's always willing to push the envelope to greater challenges."

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan often calls Guentzel's behavior on the ice "brave" or "courageous." That's certainly one way to describe a rookie, listed at 5-foot-11 and a generous 180 pounds, who continues to bury shots, including Sunday's overtime winner, by situating himself at the net front.

That tendency to post up at the blue paint caught Mike Guentzel by surprise when he began following Jake's performances late last season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, where he tallied seven goals and 20 points in 21 games, including five goals in 10 postseason appearances.

Austin Ortega, Guentzel's roommate and challenger for scoring leads at Nebraska-Omaha, turned it into a running joke in their text message exchanges. Guentzel's nose for the net certainly never materialized to such a noticeable degree in college, where Ortega edged Guentzel in goals in 2015-16 (21 to 19) and 2014-15 (20 to 14).

"I definitely noticed with the coaches or whatever that we had, they kind of pushed him out of his comfort zone and challenged him to go to the front of the net, which is somewhere that he really didn't go to," Ortega said. "He was always a look-to-pass-first guy. … Now it's like he's a new guy, a new player. I always give him a hard time for it."

At Penguins development camp in late June, Ortega and Guentzel wandered around the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex uncertain of where their careers would go next. Ortega readied for his senior season at Nebraska-Omaha — he turned a 47-point season into an amateur tryout contract agreement with the AHL's San Diego Gulls. Guentzel, not far removed from his breakout playoff performance with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, simply hoped to crack the Penguins' lineup in 2016-17.

"I don't think he realized he would make such a big impact as soon as he did," Ortega said.

Mark Recchi, present at that camp, identified Guentzel's "compete level" as the biggest eye opener. The Penguins trusted their winger's hockey IQ and speed when they drafted him in the third round in 2013. The will to win and score took a little longer to reveal itself.

Guentzel acknowledged it required a conscious shift on his part.

"I didn't realize until, just watching people in pro hockey, that you have to be at the front of the net all the time," he said. "So I just tried to change (my style) and just tried to be there as much as I can."

Sidney Crosby savors wingers who join him for scrums and scoring-chance creation below the faceoff dots. Guentzel gladly obliges. And Mike Guentzel, when not busy with his duties as the University of Minnesota's associate head coach, will watch just to see what happens next.

"People want to talk about being undersized and lack of this or that, but you can never really measure people's heart, their competitiveness, their (guts)," Mike Guentzel said. "It's tough to instill that in guys. We can do drills and try to increase some of the competitiveness. Jake has just had that from the days he was a mite making the squirt team and always playing up."

Bill West is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at wwest@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

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