Kovacevic: Guentzel’s goals, grit, guts galore


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Jake Guentzel drops after blocking a shot Wednesday night at PPG Paints Arena. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Jake Guentzel's difficult to decipher, certainly on the surface. As Zach Aston-Reese would word it for me late Wednesday night at PPG Paints Arena, "He's just so low-key. Like, you know what I mean?"

I did, but I'd hoped to hear more.

"Like, you don't really know. You see him off the ice, and he could be a computer science major at Carnegie Mellon, for all you'd know."

Oh, man.

Turning serious, Aston-Reese added, "Really, you look at how tough he is, what he plays through ... he takes a beating, and nothing puts him out. He just bounces back. He's like ... an amoeba or something."

I'm not even sure what that one meant, but then I don't have a degree from CMU.

Here's what I do know: What's below is the virtuoso work of a bona fide NHL 40-goal scorer ...

... and yet, it somehow might not have been Guentzel's chief contribution toward the Penguins taking down the Avalanche, the NHL's last undefeated team, 3-2, on Brandon Tanev's overtime goal.

Not when he twice was felled by putting himself directly in the path of booming point shots, by Ryan Graves in the second period and by Samuel Girard in the third ...

... getting back up to his skates slowly both times, gliding slowly back to the bench, but never missing a single shift.

Not when he routinely took hard checks from bigger bodies because it meant making the right play, such as this simple clear early in the third before being bowled over by Gabe Landeskog:

Not when he similarly put himself in peril on a clear attempt later that period before being buried from behind by old friend Ian Cole:

Follow those clips through, and they've all got the same finish: He just bounced back. Like an amoeba or something.

Anyone who wants to fully grasp how these Penguins, with five missing regular forwards -- Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bjugstad, Bryan Rust, Alex Galchenyuk and now Jared McCann -- have pulled off winning four in a row, don't look nearly as much to the shiny new rookies in the field as to those who've been here a while and are leading the way.

The other storyline's more fun, but this is more fact.

That's why Mike Sullivan, who'd fielded a whole lot of media questions about Sam Lafferty, Adam Johnson and other kids on the weekend trip through St. Paul and Winnipeg, heard them brought up again after this one but seemed to steer a couple of his answers toward the older players.

"I give our leadership group a lot of credit," Sullivan replied to one. "I think our veteran guys really stepped up here, and then everybody else falls in line."

Yeah, this is what I'd gathered on the trip, too. It's begun with Sidney Crosby, but it's also been Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin -- though neither performed on the ice all that well in this one -- as well as Patric Hornqvist and that other grizzled vet Guentzel, too.

It's hard to think of Guentzel that way, isn't it?

He's only 25, and it still feels like just last summer that he was the babyface raising the Stanley Cup in Nashville. But this is his fourth NHL season, and he's grown in every way, well beyond the 40 goals from 2018-19. He's become far more complete defensively, inspired by Crosby's own 200-foot passion, and he's never come close to putting himself above the process.

Look up there again. Either one of those shots easily could've eaten up a quarter of his season. If nothing else, one might think he'd at least be more cautious with the second such occasion, but instead he lined right up and took it.

I asked Matt Murray, the man spared from making that particular save through traffic, how he felt about that in the moment:

I asked Crosby about Guentzel's evening, as well.

"You know, he's been doing that for a long time, but even then ... making those shot blocks, those hard plays on the wall, all those little things that probably don't show up on the stat sheet, those are huge. Everyone's doing it, but when we see a guy like Guentz doing it, I think that's contagious for everyone."

Sullivan's respect for Guentzel has been through the roof since his arrival, but it rises to another level when talking about his guts. So yeah, I broached this with him, too.

"He's tough as nails," the coach began, emphasizing those second and fourth words in that inimitable style of his. "He blocks shots, he takes hits. He took a couple of big hits tonight ... those blocks ... he's just a brave kid. He's so competitive."

He paused as he looked at me and smiled slightly.

"You know, I don't know how else to describe him. He's an inspiring kid, the way he plays. The goal he scored tonight, that's a goal-scorer's goal. To get that puck under the defenseman's stick, then onto his forehand, then right under the bar the way he did, that's a goal-scorer's goal. But he also plays with a tremendous amount of courage."

I'd have spoken with Guentzel about this, too. Should've guessed he'd be getting treatment for all those bumps and bruises.

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