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Tim Benz

Tim Benz: Jake Guentzel's goals a necessity for Penguins

| Monday, April 9, 2018, 9:27 p.m.
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby celebrates with Jake Guentzel after Guentzel's goal against the Canadiens in the third period of a March 21 game.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby celebrates with Jake Guentzel after Guentzel's goal against the Canadiens in the third period of a March 21 game.

If the Penguins are to win a third consecutive Stanley Cup, some elements of their game need to improve.

Team defense: The Pens allowed 3.02 goals per game. That's the worst average among the NHL's playoff teams.

Penalty kill: The Penguins allowed at least one power-play goal in 11 of their final 14 regular-season games.

Goaltending: If Matt Murray should get hurt, there's no Marc-Andre Fleury to back him up this year. And Murray didn't have quite as sharp of a regular season as a year ago. His goals-against average is up to 2.92 from 2.41. His save percentage is down from .923 to .907.

Road play: During their past two Cup-winning seasons, the Penguins won 41 of 82 road games. This season, they went 17-20-4. That's the lowest road win total of any playoff team in the Eastern Conference, and the most regulation road losses.

But there's an element of the Penguins game that needs to be impacted by one specific player.

Jake Guentzel needs to start scoring again.

Perhaps that started in the season finale against Ottawa. Guentzel got a goal. Just his second since Feb. 23. That's not good enough for a guy who is playing with Sidney Crosby most of the time.

If Crosby can't help you score, then maybe no one can.

It probably has felt that way at times for Guentzel, who had 13 goals a year ago in the playoffs. That was one away from tying Dino Ciccarelli's 1981 record of 14 goals in a postseason by a rookie skater.

That production from Guentzel wasn't just a nice, extra little boost for the Penguins. It was essential. They leaned on him to score. Especially at even strength. His 13 goals led the team. And 12 of them came at even strength.

Five of those goals were game winners, most in the playoffs.

You could argue Guentzel is just the victim of an overcorrection when it comes to “puck luck.” His shooting percentage of 25 percent in the playoffs was insanity.

Even in his 40-game first season, Guentzel shot 19 percent. That was better than any other Penguin who played more than 10 games in 2016-17.

That number dropped to 12.9 percent this season.

So what does Guentzel need to do to get the puck to go in the net, beyond just raw finishing ability and few extra bounces?

Mike Sullivan had a few ideas when asked Monday.

“If he just focuses on the details of the game, then his talent will take over and his instincts will take over,” the Penguins coach said. “It's about wall play. It's about decisions with the puck. It's puck support. It's staying on the right side of puck battles. It's going to the net when our points have the puck and have an opportunity.”

Guentzel added some other areas of self-critique.

“I've just got to be hard on pucks,” he said in advance of Wednesday's playoff opener against the Philadelphia Flyers. “Use my speed. Create turnovers like I was doing last year.”

Guentzel insisted his speed is still present despite the rigors of having played all 82 games in his first full NHL season.

As far as the other elements he referenced, those are good points as well. The Penguins list Guentzel at 5-foot-11, 180 pounds. Only Conor Sheary is smaller among regular starters on the team. So you can see why maintaining puck possession may be difficult, particularly during grinding postseason games.

When it comes to creating more turnovers, not only would that help generate more transition scoring chances for Guentzel and his line, it would help prevent getting scored upon as well. Guentzel went from a plus-7 a season ago to a minus-9 this season.

When asked why he was so productive last spring, Guentzel made it sound like where his goals were scored was a bigger deal than the raw total.

“I just think being in front of the net,” he said. “It's tough to get there now. But you've just got to be around there.”

Despite Guentzel's dry spell, it doesn't sound as if he's heading for a benching or a demotion of any kind.

“He's a very good player,” Sullivan said. “He's an important player for us. We believe he'll be at his best when these playoffs start.”

That better be the case. Because Guentzel's scoring isn't a luxury for this team. It's a necessity if it wants to win a third consecutive Cup.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at tbenz@tribweb.com or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.

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