I confess. If I was constructing a hockey team from scratch, I’d probably lean toward the “bigger is better” approach. Much like Columbus, the Penguins’ hated first-round playoff foe.
However, I’m quickly gaining an appreciation for the opposite side of the coin. Good things, do indeed, come in small packages.
The Pens’ Jake Guentzel, for example. Generously listed at 5’11” and 180 pounds, at times the tousle-haired forward resembles a boy skating among men. Although Jake may be dwarfed by opposing redwoods, he plays like a giant.
Such was the case during yesterday’s scintillating 5-4 overtime victory over Columbus before a passionate throng at Nationwide Arena. A heart-pounder of a game that featured more plot twists than a classic suspense thriller.
In a big-time postseason performance unmatched by any I can recall from a Pens rookie other than Matt Murray, Guentzel notched his first NHL hat trick, including the game-winner at 13:10 of overtime.
If Murray has ice water running in his veins, Guentzel must have antifreeze for blood. Call him “Cool Hand Jake.” Or perhaps “Jake the Snake” for the way he slithers through the tiniest of openings, coiled and ready to strike.
Unfazed on a big stage, the kid set the tone for the Pens’ dramatic Game 3 triumph. Three minutes after Cam Atkinson struck virtually from the opening faceoff, Guentzel stole the Blue Jackets’ thunder by firing the puck home from a sharp angle. Quieting the capacity crowd and lifting his team off the deck
Although Columbus would victimize Marc-Andre Fleury twice more in a matter of minutes to snatch a 3-1 lead, Jake’s marker served notice of the comeback to come.
Having survived the rocky first period, the Pens began to reel their rivals in. While Fleury settled down between the pipes, the second line chipped in at the 5:21 mark with the first of their two second-period goals. Evgeni Malkin dug the puck off the boards and slipped a pass to Brian Dumoulin at center point. “Dumo” flicked a perfectly placed shot/pass onto the blade of Bryan Rust, who gained inside position on Brandon Dubinsky. Rust steered the puck home.
“Rusty” emerged front and center on the Pens’ next tally, too. Setting up shop to the left of the Columbus net, No. 17 watched as Malkin’s cross-crease setup was picked off by Pittsburgh native Brandon Saad. Rust alertly swatted Saad’s stick blade, propelling the puck past Sergei Bobrovsky and knotting the score at 3-3.
Midway through the final period, Guentzel re-surfaced in a big way. Planted to the left of the Jackets’ net on a power play, courtesy of a cross-checking call to Dubinsky, Jake picked up a carom off the end boards and swept the puck in off Bobrovsky’s right leg from below the goal line. A Crosby-esque move if I ever saw one.
Unfortunately, Dubinsky atoned for his penalty with 4:49 remaining. Exploiting a gap between Guentzel and Carter Rowney, the abrasive Blue Jacket drove to the net and whipped a rebound past Fleury.
Our nemesis nearly earned the laurels seven minutes into overtime when he snatched up a juicy rebound and fired the puck toward a wide-open net. But Fleury, flashing his wondrous reflexes, slid across the crease at the last second to stop Dubinsky’s rising shot with his noggin.
Cue the kid. While linemates Sidney Crosby and Conor Sheary applied pressure behind the Columbus net, Guentzel waited patiently in the slot. After keeping the cycle alive with some extraordinary work, Sid slipped a pretty backhand pass off the end boards. Jake made no mistake, one-timing the puck through Bobrovsky’s six-hole for the game winner.
“(Guentzel) made a great play to pop out and get away from his check and find an opening,” Sid said. “It squeezed in there between the posts.”
As the dejected Jackets skulked off the ice, Jake dropped to a knee and shook his fist. Then he glided to the sideboards, where he was mobbed by joyous teammates.
To borrow from the old ABC classic, Wide World of Sports, truly the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
The Penguins outshot Columbus, 47-37, and won 55 percent of the faceoffs. Hits were virtually even, with the Blue Jackets enjoying a slight edge (33-31).
Malkin’s goal was his 50th in postseason play. “Geno” tallied three points (1+2) and finished a plus-2. Crosby collected two assists. Patric Hornqvist paced the black and gold with five shots on goal, tying Dubinsky and fellow Jackets forward Nick Foligno for the game high.
Fleury stopped 33 shots, including a point-blank pad save on Dubinsky midway through the first period. Bobrovsky made 42 saves in a losing effort, many of the highlight-reel variety.
Columbus defenseman Zach Werenski was injured moments before the Pens’ third goal when he was struck in the face with the puck. He returned for the third period wearing a cage mask, but did not play in overtime.