Mike knew Jake had scored, but he didn’t know how yet because the radio broadcast was delayed. He heard the play-by-play catch up, the puck carom off the end boards and Jake put it in 3:17 into the first period, pulling the Penguins into a 1-1 tie with the Blue Jackets.
After the game he was scouting ended, Mike hopped in his car for the 4-½ half hour drive home and kept listening to the Penguins. He was about five minutes down the road when his phone buzzed again.
Another puck caromed off the end boards and Jake put it in, banking it off the back of the left pad of goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky on the power play 11:48 into the third, giving the Penguins a 4-3 lead.
“Aw, that was awesome,” Mike thought.
The Blue Jackets tied it, and the game went to overtime. But about an hour and a half into the drive, just outside of Worthington, Minnesota, his phone buzzed yet again. He grabbed it with a mixture of excitement and anxiety. Did they win? Did they lose?
Jake smacked in a pass from Sidney Crosby 13:10 into OT. The Penguins had a 5-4 victory and 3-0 lead against the Blue Jackets in their best-of-7 series in the Eastern Conference First Round.
“When you can score in overtime of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, that’s something you dream about,” Jake said.
As a player and as a parent.
“It’s crazy to think that your kid would score in the playoffs,” Mike said. “Obviously the run Jake’s had this year has been pretty special.”
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Jake is 22 and listed at 5-feet-11, 180 pounds. He has little to say in interviews. But he has made a major impact on the ice and cannot avoid the spotlight.
In his first full regular season as a professional, he had 42 points (21 goals, 21 assists) in 33 games for Wilkes-Barre Scranton of the American Hockey League and 33 points (16 goals, 17 assists) in 40 games for the Penguins.
He had two goals in his NHL debut against the New York Rangers on Nov. 21, scoring on his first shot on his first shift. He was first in the AHL in goals and second in points when he was called up to Pittsburgh for good on Jan. 16. He ended the regular season on a five-game goal streak.
Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews, the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, was the only other rookie with a five-game goal streak this season. Winnipeg Jets forward Patrik Laine (0.88), the No. 2 pick in the 2016 draft, and Matthews (0.84) were the only rookies who had more points per game than Guentzel’s 0.83.
Through his first three playoff games, Jake has four bingos and an apple.
“He’s playing unbelievable right now,” Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta said. “He’s a big part of our team. What you saw [Sunday], but it’s not only the goals. It’s just him holding onto the puck, making the right play at the right time. It’s pretty amazing to watch what he’s able to do.”
Yes, Jake has been playing on a line with Crosby since March 11, and that helps. But he’s playing with Crosby for a reason: He’s competitive, fearless and intelligent. He goes to the net. He knows how to find soft spots in the defense. He does the little things.
Jake drew the penalty that led to his power-play goal on Sunday, taking a cross-check from Brandon Dubinsky in front. On the winning goal, Crosby was buzzing below the goal line, his signature. Jake slipped into an opening in front of the net and lifted the stick of Blue Jackets forward Cam Atkinson so his stick would be free. When Crosby backhanded a pass in front, Jake was in position to score.
“I think his hockey sense might be his biggest asset,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.
It goes back to nature and nurture.
Mike Guentzel was picked in the seventh round (No. 135) by the Rangers in the 1981 draft, played in college at Minnesota and briefly in the IHL and AHL, and has coached at several different levels. He will receive the Terry Flanagan Award from the American Hockey Coaches Association on April 26 in Naples, Florida, in recognition of his work.
He had two older sons who played college hockey: Ryan at Notre Dame and Gabe at Colorado College. Gabe plays professionally in Germany.
Jake was small and skinny growing up. To hang with his brothers and make it in hockey, he had to be competitive, fearless and intelligent. He learned from watching his brothers, his dad and his dad’s players.
“Sometimes you get a little brother who just sits back and the older brother’s going to prod him, but not Jake,” Mike said. “He wanted to be first, and he wanted to be in the front, and he wanted to get the big goals. That’s just kind of way he’s been. That’s what I love about him. ‘Tell me I’m too small. Tell me I’m not this. Tell me I’m not that. And I’ll show you.’ He just does it quietly and goes about his business.”
If Jake had a chance to go to the rink with his brothers or his dad, he would go to be with the big boys. He used to spend hours at the University of Minnesota’s Mariucci Arena and looked up to future NHL players like Keith Ballard and Paul Martin.
“Game days, we were there pretty much all day, and practice days, I always went right there during the week,” Jake said. “Just kind of roaming around as a kid, trying to be everywhere.”
Jake left home his senior year of high school and played for Sioux City of the USHL in 2012-13. It wasn’t a typical move for a Minnesota kid, considering the importance of high school hockey in the state and his dad’s job.
“Didn’t sit well with certain people,” Mike said. “That’s all part of it too. But he looked at his mother and father and said, ‘I want to be a hockey player, and this is the thing I need to do right now.’ We blessed it, even though we were reserved a little bit in what we felt.”
Jake had 73 points (29 goals, 44 assists) in 60 games for Sioux City. The Penguins picked him in the third round (No. 77) of the 2013 draft.
“He just learned the total package of what it takes,” Mike said. “That’s when he became a really good student, and that’s probably the thing we’re most proud of. That taught him the discipline of training and working and doing things right, acting the right way. It just went extremely well for him there. They accelerated him and put him into college faster than he thought he was going to go in.”
Jake spent three seasons at Nebraska-Omaha, then turned pro. He had six points (two goals, four assists) in 11 regular-season games and 14 points (five goals, nine assists) in 10 playoff games for Wilkes-Barre last year.
He has matured physically. He hits the gym with his brother Gabe four or five days a week in the summer, and they push each other.
“People always look at the bigger, stronger kids at 14 and 15 and think they’re going to be the finished product, and there’s kids like Jake who just keep working and keep grinding and keep getting better,” Mike said. “That’s the biggest thing that’s happened in the last three, four years. His body has grown and given his assets a chance to really blossom here.”
* * * * *
Sally has joked that Mike is not allowed to watch Jake play anymore out of superstition. Why mess with what’s worked? Why not stick to text messages and radio broadcasts?
Jake made the same joke Monday.
“I don’t know if he’s going to be able to watch anymore,” Jake said with a smile.
But when the Penguins try to close out the series at Nationwide Arena on Tuesday (7:30 p.m. ET; CNBC, SN360, TVA Sports 2, FS-O, ROOT), Mike will not be scouting in some arena somewhere with his headphones on. He will not be on the road listening to the radio. He will be free to sit down in his great room, glued to the television.
“There’s no way I can’t watch,” Mike said. “It’s neat as a parent and neat as a father.”