DALLAS -- It'd be a stretch, 59 times over, to suggest Jake Guentzel's having the greatest even-strength scoring performance in the Penguins' history. That's one of countless after-effects of following Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
But the greatest in pure even-strength production from a percentage standpoint?
According to research by Bob Maddamma, our lead copy editor: Guentzel's 31 even-strength goals this season rank third in the NHL, tied with the Capitals' Alexander Ovechkin, one behind the Blackhawks' Patrick Kane, and two behind the Maple Leafs' John Tavares. Should Guentzel pass those players, he'd be the first member of the Penguins to lead the league in even-strength goals since Jagr's 37 in 2000-01, the season Lemieux emerged from retirement to form a spectacular No. 1 line.
Jagr wound up with 52 total goals, so 71.2 percent of his goals were at even-strength. For Guentzel, who's got 37 total goals -- five on the power play, one short-handed -- 83.8 percent of his goals are at even-strength. And among all 15 players in franchise history who've scored 30-plus even-strength goals in a season, no one's had a percentage that high. The next highest: Petr Nedved at 80 percent in 1995-96.
I ran all this by Guentzel after the morning skate today at American Airlines Center in advance of tonight's 8:08 p.m. faceoff with the Stars.
"Anytime you hear numbers like that, names like that, it's pretty cool," he replied. "But honestly, I'm just trying to score, trying to help the team. So much of the game is five-on-five. It's just kind of how it's been working out this year. You play with good players, and I'm just fortunate they've been going in."
OK, here's what he won't say, but others will: It's almost impossibly hard to do what he's doing, if only because he'd been left off the top power-play unit most of the winter. The four standard forwards, of course, have been Crosby, Malkin, Patric Hornqvist and Phil Kessel, and it wasn't until Malkin's injury two weeks ago that Guentzel got regular duty.
"What he's doing isn't easy," Crosby told me. "Five-on-five, you've got to work for every inch you get out there. When you're on the power play, even if you're not scoring, you still get a lot of rhythm from it, a lot of confidence. Five-on-five, every night is difficult. It's hard to get to the front. It's hard to create. And he's done it consistently. All year. It says a lot about how well he's played."
Crosby would know. Only twice in his illustrious career has he scored 30 or more even-strength goals in a season. The same is true for Malkin. In fact, Alexei Kovalev is the only additional Penguin to reach that threshold since Jagr in 2000-01.
As with Lemieux and Jagr back in the day, there's a direct connection between Crosby and Guentzel, regardless of the third linemate. With Lemieux and Jagr, it was primarily Jan Hrdina, a humble two-way center entrusted to take faceoffs and tend to defending. With these two, it's currently Bryan Rust, but others have come and gone without diminishing the returns.
We should probably be well past the point of presuming that Guentzel simply siphons off Crosby. There's a two-way chemistry, a mutual complement and benefit. And that, more than anything, is why both these players -- Crosby's 33 goals include 22 at even-strength -- have been so consistently ... not just effective but electric even when the rink's at its most crowded.
"Honestly, I've learned a lot from Sid about how to handle five-on-five," Guentzel told me. "How to forecheck. How to find the areas. How to get the puck to him when he needs it. How to work the give-and-go. I've learned so much."
And now that he's on the power play?
"For me, nothing really changes. It's just another chance to help the team."
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