Jake Guentzel leads Penguins to overtime preseason win
With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang yet to make their preseason debuts, it could be said the Penguins dressed a lineup bereft of stars Wednesday night.
That wouldn't be true.
Jake Guentzel was playing.
The second-year pro had a goal and four assists as the Penguins defeated the Detroit Red Wings, 6-5, in their preseason home opener. Justin Schultz scored the winner on a breakaway 27 seconds into overtime.
“Unbelievable playmaker,” said rookie center Adam Johnson, who scored two goals off Guentzel assists. “You can put anyone with him, and they're going to score goals. You throw him with guys like Sid and (Conor Sheary), and it's just unfair. It was a lot of fun playing with him. It was a great experience.”
For his first point, Guentzel stole a puck from former Penguins defenseman Trevor Daley on the forecheck to set up Johnson's first goal. On his goal, he camped out alone in front of the net and slapped a Schultz pass past goalie Thomas McCollum on the power play.
“Probably the smartest player I've ever played with after tonight,” Johnson said. “I like to watch him in practice, the plays he makes. His smarts just jump off the page.”
With the Penguins dressing a largely inexperienced lineup, Guentzel, who led the league with 13 playoff goals last season, was among the more accomplished players on the ice. He played like it, too, operating with the puck on his stick more than he might when playing with Crosby as his center.
“I felt confident. You get comfortable out there,” Guentzel said. “You try to do the things you worked on in the summer and try to bring it into here and do your thing.”
Aside from Guentzel, the players who took the biggest strides forward Wednesday night were probably Johnson and Greg McKegg, both contenders for one of the team's vacant bottom-six center positions.
A 23-year-old who left Minnesota-Duluth after two seasons to sign with the Penguins in July, Johnson has flashed NHL-caliber speed since the start of camp.
He's listed at 6-foot, 155 pounds, and that might not be far from the truth, so he could use some time to bulk up. Still, a longshot bid at an opening-night roster spot is not out of the question.
“I think they like to play a fast game, and that's the way I play,” Johnson said. “I think that's a big reason I'm kind of fitting in right now. I just hope to keep playing like I did tonight and keep it rolling.”
McKegg, meanwhile, also scored a second-period goal, beating his defender to the left post and finishing off a Scott Wilson pass.
McKegg, a 25-year-old who split last season between Florida and Tampa Bay, has earned praise from coach Mike Sullivan for his skating ability and two-way game. At this point, he could be the leading contender for one of the open center jobs.
He was a prolific scorer in junior hockey for the Erie Otters, but has played more of a checking-line role in the NHL.
“The last few years, (I've) been trying to contribute on both ends of the ice,” McKegg said. “To play in this league on a consistent basis, I think you've got to have an all-around game and contribute on the defensive side, as well. I think that's a key for me.”
As the NHL continues its preseason officiating crackdown, there were 16 minor penalties called in the game, including seven for slashing and two for Detroit faceoff violations.
“There's going to be a feeling-out process until everybody figures out what's within the rules,” Sullivan said. “We're going to have to continue to make sure we have a heightened awareness.”