Beyond the intense focus on the Pittsburgh Penguins goaltending in the Round One series loss to the New York Islanders, the other issue which plagued the Penguins was their steadfast inability to get the clinching goal. Or the next goal. Or simply enough goals. And that responsibility falls on the Penguins goal scorers, including top-line left wing Jake Guentzel.
Despite playing only six games against a defensively stingy team, the Penguins far and away still lead the NHL playoffs in total scoring chances with 177. The Vegas Golden Knights just completed a seven-game win over the Minnesota Wild and have only 158.
It will take at least another couple of games before the Carolina Hurricanes or Boston Bruins catch the Penguins total.
And yet, the Penguins scored just 16 goals in six games. They yielded 21 and that’s why they’re at home.
Guentzel is one of those players who is primarily responsible to light the lamp. His ice time, his role which includes playing with Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, and his ample paycheck are because he can score goals.
Yet Guentzel didn’t hit the scoresheet until a power-play goal in Game 6.
“…Sometimes you feel it and everything goes in. And sometimes it’s just not going to find a way in the net. I thought I had chances, I had shots,” Guentzel said. “I’ve got to find a better way to produce and do my job there, so I take responsibility for that and I let a lot of people down. But I’ve just got to find a way to put the puck in and make plays and be better there.”
That’s a big admission from Guentzel; not that he didn’t score enough in the Round One series, but that he let down his team.
As PHN noted during the series, Guentzel did indeed have a lot of shots. But the stat sheet and the reality diverge. Guentzel put shots on net but a vast majority of those shots were not in the scoring zones. For example, in Game 4, Guentzel led the Penguins with six shots but only one was within 25 feet.
At 5v5, Guentzel had no goals and one assist. Overall, he had 19 shots at even strength, and according to NaturalStatTrick.com, Guentzel also had 19 scoring chances (which means a lot were blocked). In six games, Guentzel had only eight high-danger chances.
The New York Islanders had no shame putting more than a couple of bodies near the net. It was a crowded and heavy space around the Islanders net. And the 5-foot-11, 180-pound Guentzel has swallowed up.
Guentzel wasn’t the only winger who had trouble scoring. Jared McCann had no goals. Jason Zucker had a pair of markers but only 11 shots and three high-danger chances in the six games. The Penguins top three LWs counted only Zucker’s goals at even-strength and were largely ineffective against the Islanders’ packed defensive strategy.
“…We were feeling good about ourselves going into the playoffs. But sometimes you just run into a good team–and they’re a good team and they had a great goaltender,” Guentzel said. “So it’s just it’s part of the game sometimes.”
Whether the Penguins challenged Guentzel to get stronger, or the intelligent player already knew, Guentzel admitted that 180 pounds probably isn’t enough, especially with the changing NHL game which is moving back towards a heavy physicality to combat speedy teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins.
If Guentzel is a Penguins winger next season, he will have to fight through the clog of the New York Islanders, or any number of other teams who realize they too can beat speedy, smaller teams by packing the zone and daring the wingers t break up the clog.
And the Pittsburgh Penguins will need more from Guentzel, not in the regular season, where he has an amazing 83 goals in his last 177 games. His numbers are unquestionably elite, but in the playoffs, he has struggled mightily over the past three seasons.
After scoring 23 goals in his first 37 playoff games, Guentzel has just three goals in the last three years, which spans only 14 games, in part because Guentzel has not filled the net with Crosby as he did in 2017 and 2018.
The Islanders, Montreal Canadiens, and the Islanders again have deployed similar strategies to beat the Penguins. Each team protected the net and packed the zone. They gave the Penguins the perimeter and the puck, but took away the scoring zones, at least without being paying the price to get there.
Letting people down might be dramatic, but it is his job and he’ll need to find a way to get that red light flashing again, or the Penguins will continue to lose–assuming they make the playoffs for the 16th straight season.
Guentzel is going to hit the weight room to hold up his end of the bargain.
Pittsburgh Penguins Jake Guentzel: