Kevin Gorman: Jake Guentzel’s goal is to push Penguins into playoffs
Jake Guentzel doesn’t deny he is goal-oriented, even if the Pittsburgh Penguins winger is focused more on the standings than his statistics as he approaches a meaningful milestone.
It’s more about the race than the chase.
Guentzel’s overtime winner against the Florida Panthers on Tuesday night was his 33rd goal in 67 games this season, which is more than Sidney Crosby (31), Phil Kessel (21) or Evgeni Malkin (22). Not only is Guentzel on pace to become the first Penguins winger to record a 40-goal season since James Neal in 2011-12 but he also is positioned to become their first player not named Crosby or Malkin to lead the team in goals in a full season since Ryan Malone in 2003-04.
That’s incredible, even to Guentzel.
“Just those two guys and what they’ve done in their careers, being prolific scorers, it would be a pretty special feeling,” Guentzel said. “But you know those guys are going to get their points and score. That’s what they do day-in and day-out. But it would be a pretty cool feeling.”
That Guentzel is outpacing a pair of Penguins all-time greats is eye-opening in this era of hockey, when a scoring winger such as Kessel has six seasons with 30-plus goals but hasn’t cracked the 40-goal mark.
“It’s impressive in any era of hockey,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “That’s a lot of goals. He’s played extremely well for us this year. I’ve spoken about this a lot this year: What we’ve really been appreciative of Jake and his game is his consistency. That’s one of the biggest changes from last year. He’s brought it every night. When he does that, he’s a really good player for us, and it shows in his production.”
Most impressive about Guentzel’s scoring is he doesn’t have the benefit of being on the Penguins’ first-team power play. Only Chicago’s Patrick Kane (31) and Washington’s Alex Ovechkin and Toronto’s John Tavares (30 each) have more even-strength goals than Guentzel’s 29, with three coming on power plays and one short-handed.
That’s why his Penguins teammates rave about the hockey IQ of the 5-foot-11, 180-pounder, who has an instinct for finding the soft spots on the ice and scoring with a shot that stands out even to Crosby.
“He knows where to go, and when he gets it, he gets it off quick,” Crosby said. “I think he’s accurate, but he scores in different ways. The shot comes to mind, but he scores in and around the net, deflections and he’s not afraid to go to those tough-to-score areas, too. He can do it a lot of different ways, and that’s why he’s scored so many.”
That Crosby trails Guentzel by only two goals should make the final 15 games of the regular season even more riveting, not only to see who scores the most goals but also whether the linemates can propel the Penguins into the playoffs.
Two of Guentzel’s four career hat tricks have come against the Columbus Blue Jackets, who trail the Penguins by four points in Eastern Conference standings going into their game Saturday. Guentzel has scored goals against eight of the 10 remaining opponents, all but Nashville (whom he hasn’t played) and Detroit.
“I think the main thing right now is to win games,” Guentzel said. “If I score, I score. I’m just trying to do whatever to help. We’re in a tight race, so I’m trying to get points and get wins. If the goals come, they come. I’m just trying to play good. If I’m doing my part, scoring goals or creating chances, if that leads to us getting a better chance to win, that’s the main thing.”
Leading the Penguins in goals would be something special, especially if Guentzel pushes them into the playoffs.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .