HARD HITS: Rookies Guentzel and Murray starring in possible Pens repeat


Jake Guentzel, Brian Dumoulin

Rookie Jake Guentzel has been instrumental during the Pens run leading the NHL Playoffs with 12 goals, five game-winners and a new rookie record 19 points. He and Matt Murray are big reasons the Pens are within two wins of a repeat. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy Denver Post. 

The Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy to win in sports. It requires teams to go through four grueling rounds and win 16 games. It helps explain why no one has repeated since the Red Wings in ’97 and ’98.

The defending champion Penguins are attempting to accomplish the rare double. Something the same franchise did in ’91 and ’92 led by aces Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr. Twenty-five years later, they’re led by another pair in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The game’s best player and the game’s most overlooked superstar.

Along with lethal sniper Phil Kessel, they have been instrumental during the Pens’ run. Not surprisingly, they are the top three leading scorers in the NHL playoffs. Malkin leads the way with 26 (9-17-26) followed by Crosby (7-15-22) and Kessel (7-13-20).

However, it isn’t only the dynamic Pens trio that has them two wins away from a repeat. Pittsburgh also features a pair of impressive rookies who are a big part of it. In forward Jake Guentzel and goalie Matt Murray, the Pens boast two of the most promising young players in the game.

Murray took center stage last year. After just 13 starts in the regular season, he took the Pens all the way to the franchise’s fourth Cup. The former 2012 third round pick taken 83rd overall was splendid in replacing Marc-Andre Fleury and going 15-6 with a 2.08 goals-against-average with a .923 save percentage and one shutout in 21 appearances.

The 23-year old’s poise under pressure is one of his best characteristics. He rarely panics. Even in a dicey Game 7 against the Senators which required two overtimes, Murray made a few timely stops before Crosby set up Chris Kunitz’s winner in sudden death that sent the Pens to a second consecutive Stanley Cup Final. Since relieving Fleury against Ottawa, he’s 5-1 in six starts with a 1.54 GAA, .943 save percentage and one shutout. For his postseason career, Murray’s 20-7 with a 1.95 GAA, .928 save percentage and two shutouts.

Facing the Predators. the Pens managed to win the first two games on home ice thanks to some crucial play from Murray and new first-year sensation Guentzel. In Game 1, they blew a 3-0 lead due to a Preds onslaught. Nashville was relentless scoring the next three while holding Pittsburgh without a shot in 37 straight minutes. Somehow, the Pens were able to get what they needed from Guentzel, who beat Pekka Rinne on his team’s first shot since the first period with 3:17 remaining. It was his 10th goal of the postseason. Nick Bonino’s empty netter sealed the 5-3 win.

Game 2 was different with the Pens erupting for three goals in a 3:18 span at the start of the third to break open a tie game for a 4-1 victory. Guentzel was again front and center. Having earlier scored the tying goal on a bad rebound short side on a shaky Rinne late in the first, he was again in the right spot to put away a leaky Bryan Rust rebound for the game-winner just 10 seconds into the final stanza. Guentzel has established a new rookie record with 12 goals and 19 points. He leads all skaters with five game-winners.

The 22-year old former Pens 2013 third round pick taken 77th overall is making it look easy. Listed at only 5-11, 180 pounds, you wouldn’t know it by the way he plays. Guentzel uses his speed and quick release to make things happen. He has tremendous skill and is willing to go to the scoring areas. It’s worth noting that in his recall, he put up 16 goals and 17 assists in 40 games. He quietly did it while Crosby got all the ink winning the Rocket Richard with 44 goals. His 89 points tied for second in the league trailing only Hart favorite Connor McDavid.

With injuries limiting Patric Hornqvist and Bonino to seven points with Connor Sheary only contributing a goal and five helpers, they’ve needed Guentzel’s production. Without it, they wouldn’t be in a winning position with the series shifting to Nashville for the next two starting tonight.

You can make a strong case for Guentzel to win the Conn Smythe. His 12 goals lead the postseason as do his five deciding markers. The 19 points rank fourth behind Malkin, Crosby and Kessel. The last rookie to win the Conn Smythe is Cam Ward, who did it in 2006 for the Hurricanes by winning 15 games as a 22-year old. Patrick Roy is the youngest winner doing it as a 20-year old with the Canadiens in 1986.

It’s safe to say that without Guentzel or Murray, the Pens wouldn’t be where they are. Credit also goes to coach Mike Sullivan, who’s pushed the right buttons. Due to the talent he has at his disposal, he doesn’t get enough credit for the tough lineup decisions and hunches he’s played in adjusting his lines during games. He’s willing to move players up and down throughout the lineup and get the desired results.

He also has full command of the bench. Crosby and Malkin have bought in playing more disciplined. They don’t take many frustrating retaliatory penalties anymore as they had under former coach Mike Johnston and even Dan Bylsma. They lead by example. It’s why these Pens under Sullivan are easier to respect.

Henrik Lundqvist, Antti Raanta, Derek Stepan

New York Rangers’ Derek Stepan (21) encourages goalie Henrik Lundqvist (30) as goalie Antti Raanta (32) replaces Lundqvist during the second period of the Rangers’ NHL hockey game against the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday, April 2, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

BODY CHECKS:

-The officiating continues to be substandard. They allow blatant stick fouls and mugging but call the obvious hooks and holds even if they’re phantom. If there is one gripe, it’s the inconsistency which has frustrated fans and even NBC analysts Mike Milbury and Keith Jones. They’ve been outspoken as have Pierre McGuire and Ed Olczyk.

-NBC’s coverage remains an eye sore. They’ve clearly shown bias towards the Pens with Milbury ignoring a bad call on Nashville’s Calle Jarnkrok in Game 1 that led to a full two minute Pens five-on-three thanks to a foolish cross check from ex-Pen James Neal. Jarnkrok didn’t take a penalty as the Pen was already on the way down. Something Olczyk noted.

-By the same token, Malkin got a bogus booking minor for a stick on stick with the other Pens penalty a Kunitz cross check giving Nashville a full two-man advantage. So, the refs have been bad for both sides. They missed a mugging on Guentzel from Nashville defenseman Mattias Ekholm. Crosby has certainly been worked over but also got away with interference on a Malkin power play goal in Game 1. No one said anything.

-With the officiating what it is, teams must play through. Though I would expect Nashville to get more calls at home than Game 2 when the Pens got five extra power plays.

-Say this for P.K. Subban. He doesn’t lack confidence. In being one of his team’s most effective players, he guaranteed a Game 3 victory tonight. Given how well the Preds have played on home ice in the loudest environment, why shouldn’t he be confident? They easily could’ve won Game 1 if not for Rinne’s hiccups late. Game 2 fell apart with Guentzel, Scott Wilson and Malkin turning a 1-1 game into 4-1 Pens quickly.

-Who doesn’t like seeing two of the game’s stars in Subban and Malkin going at it? That’s playoff hockey.

-Viktor Arvidsson remains stuck on one goal. Neal hasn’t done much against his former team. These two must pick it up.

-The power plays have been blah. The Pens are 1-for-9 going 0-for-7 in Game 2. The Preds are 2-for-5. They got their two in Game 1 from Ryan Ellis and Colton Sissons, who’s had the hot hand.

-Filip Forsberg has been shutout so far. That can’t continue for Nashville to get back in it. They need to sweep Games 3 and 4 to have a realistic chance. But it all comes down to tonight.

-Rinne was pulled after Malkin blew one by him in the third period for 4-1. He must find whatever mojo he had before and fast.

-Alexander Ovechkin isn’t getting traded. Let’s leave it at that.

-Even with hints he wants to play for the Rangers, no way is Ilya Kovalchuk winding up on Broadway. The Devils would never trade him here.

-Both Matt Duchene and Tyson Barrie are available from Colorado. Figure Duchene to go escaping jail. I have no idea what the plan is for the once proud Avalanche franchise that won a pair of Cups led by Joe Sakic, Roy and a Peter Forsberg.

-All the talk about LeBron James and his place in NBA history. But what about Crosby if he leads the Pens to a repeat for the hardest and most prestigious trophy? It would be three Cups in four Finals appearances along with two Harts, two Art Rosses, a Conn Smythe, two Richards and two Olympic golds including the golden goal in Vancouver. Sid is also classier. He never talks about his legacy and always gives credit to teammates. It’s a hockey thing.

-So Henrik Lundqvist injured his knee while winning gold with twin brother Joel Lundqvist in the Worlds. Maybe if the NHL wasn’t so stubborn, he wouldn’t have played. But no Olympic participation in South Korea next year was too much for Lundqvist to pass up another chance to play with his brother.

-So what if Mika Zibanejad records music in his free time. It’s June. Players are allowed to have fun too. I need to hear it just for kicks. Does DJ ZB have a future after hockey?

-Get rid of the offside challenge. It kills the flow and takes way too long. Sure. They got it right nullifying Subban’s goal which would’ve given the Preds a good start in Game 1. But it was that close with Forsberg’s skate not touching for onside. Such calls were probably missed a lot in previous postseasons. The replay challenge needs to be revamped. Is it really supposed to be used for inches on plays no one can tell?

-I still would take Nico Hischier over Nolan Patrick at number one overall if I were the Devils. Go for the more dynamic scorer. Plus he doesn’t have any injury history.

-It is gonna be odd to see two former perennial playoff rivals picking 1-2 in the NHL Draft with the Flyers getting Hischier or Patrick as a nice consolation prize.

-The expansion draft interests me. Who will Las Vegas take for their goalie? Philipp Grubauer, Antti Raanta, Malcom Subban or  Joonas Korpisalo. The draft takes place between June 18-20. But they won’t reveal the Knights roster until June 21 at the NHL Awards which are appropriately at T-Mobile Arena.

-NHL teams must submit their protect lists by 5 PM on June 17.

 

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About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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