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Penguins

Jake Guentzel moves into role on Penguins' penalty kill

Jonathan Bombulie
| Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018, 5:33 p.m.
The Penguins' Jake Guentzel takes a shot past the Blue Jackets' Scott Harrington in the first period Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Jake Guentzel takes a shot past the Blue Jackets' Scott Harrington in the first period Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.

Coming out of training camp, Jake Guentzel was a first-line winger stapled to Sidney Crosby's right hip. He was coming off a postseason in which he led the NHL in goal scoring.

The chances of him being asked to kill a penalty were only slightly greater than the chances he'd be asked to play goalie.

Still, Guentzel paid attention in the team's penalty kill meetings.

Maybe that's because he's the son of a coach who knows the surest way to tick off the man at the front of the room is to goof off during a meeting. Maybe it's because he knows a hockey season can be a six-month exercise in expecting the unexpected.

Whatever the reason, these days, Guentzel is reaping the rewards of the attention he paid.

With Carter Rowney and Bryan Rust out with injuries, the Penguins were in need of a penalty killer, and coach Mike Sullivan chose Guentzel.

“Because he's a smart player,” Sullivan said. “He's got good hockey sense. He's got good awareness. He reads plays well, and he has a lot of aptitude for the game. He picks things up. When he sits in the penalty kill meetings, he's a guy, I think, that pays attention, and he picks things up well.”

Since the start of this month, Guentzel has occupied the fourth spot in the team's penalty killing rotation at forward, averaging more than a minute of short-handed ice time per game. He played a grand total of 2 minutes, 44 seconds short-handed in the first 80 games of his NHL career.

The experiment has gone well. The team has allowed just one power-play goal in 25 chances over its last nine games, and Guentzel wasn't on the ice when the goal was scored.

“It's kind of fun doing it, to be honest with you,” said Guentzel, who played on the penalty kill some in college at Nebraska-Omaha and occasionally while in the AHL. “You're just trying to be in the right spots and take away the passing the lanes. Whenever there's a clear, you try to get off the ice. You keep it as simple as possible.”

Guentzel's penalty kill audition has coincided with a change in position. For the past four games, he moved to center on the third line between wingers Conor Sheary and Phil Kessel.

The switch is not likely to be permanent. Sullivan said repeatedly the Penguins prefer Guentzel on the wing, and general manager Jim Rutherford is believed to be on the lookout for an additional center in the trade market.

The temporary move to the middle has had its ups and downs. With an assist from Sullivan, who has tried to make things easier on Guentzel by giving his line as many offensive-zone starts as possible, the Penguins have outshot opponents 29-18 when the trio has been on the ice over the past four games.

Generally speaking, it's harder to play center than wing because of increased responsibilities in the defensive zone, but Guentzel isn't complaining.

“I don't know if it's harder,” he said. “You're playing with really great players still. There's a little more responsibility, but you still have to contribute.”

Offensive contributions are the one glaring omission from Guentzel's game lately. He has one goal in his last 19 games and no points in his last seven.

He said his plan is to keep shooting and hope the dam is about to burst.

“I feel like I've had some really Grade-A chances the last couple games,” Guentzel said. “You're hoping one goes in and that kind of opens the gates.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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