It was, perhaps, Jake Guentzel’s most impressive — and revealing — act during the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 6-3 loss in Buffalo Wednesday evening.
And all he did was stand there.
No, it wasn’t the breakaway goal he scored at KeyBank Center eight seconds after the second intermission, even though it seemed pretty consequential at the time.
After all, that goal gave the Penguins a 3-1 lead and earned Guentzel a footnote in the franchise record book as the fastest goal ever scored by a Penguins player at the start of a third period.
But the impact of Guentzel’s goal was washed away by the tsunami of offense the Sabres generated the rest of the way, as that 3-1 lead mutated into a 6-3 defeat that extended the Penguins’ winless streak to 0-5-1.
And, in the process, just might have caused the Penguins to wonder if the cliche that “no lead is safe” might actually be rooted in reality, since it has been shown repeatedly that being up by two or three goals in the third period does not guarantee that they’ll get a point or two to show for an evening’s labors.
Not surprisingly, when the Pittsburgh Penguins’ locker room was opened to reporters after the Sabres’ comeback was complete, it had cleared out in a manner that suggested someone set off a fire alarm.
Nothing of the sort had happened, of course, but it was apparent that guys weren’t terribly interested in having to explain to media members how they had failed yet again to win a game in which they held what should have been a relatively safe lead.
Frankly, it was hard to blame them. Who among us, in the wake of another exasperating day on the job, would be eager to immediately field questions about what had gone wrong, and how it can be fixed? While staring into bright lights and cameras, no less.
That doesn’t mean the locker room was entirely empty, however.
Sidney Crosby was sitting in his stall, fully aware of what awaited him.
Hockey culture demands that a captain represent his team and teammates in the most difficult of times, and Crosby recognized the importance of handling those duties, however unpleasant, long before anyone stitched a “C” onto his sweater.
While some players genuinely seem to enjoy the give-and-take with reporters, most approach it as just another element in their job description. An obligation they’re expected to fulfill occasionally, if not every day,
Every now and then, a guy comes along who reacts as if the media spotlight is a death ray, but the vast majority are cordial and cooperative, even if they don’t particularly enjoy submitting to interviews.
Although Crosby bracing for a wave of reporters was completely predictable, regardless of what he might have preferred to be doing, Evgeni Malkin doing likewise was not.
Malkin does, however, seem to be growing into his role as an elder statesman on this team, and surely could have fled to some area that was off-limits to the media if he’d been so inclined.
Instead, Malkin remained in his stall, where he took questions from the reporters who hadn’t gone directly to Crosby.
All while Guentzel stood patiently in front of his stall, just a few feet away from Crosby.
He wasn’t there because he had been slow removing his equipment, or because he was trying to eavesdrop on Crosby’s interview.
Guentzel was making sure that reporters knew he was available to discuss details of the game, and the Pittsburgh Penguins’ current plight.
When the Crosby and Malkin scrums broke up, the interviewers moved on to Guentzel, and he dutifully responded to the issues presented to him.
He didn’t do it with clever turns of a phrase or inflammatory observations — there was a time when Guentzel’s comments were so painfully dry that they almost spontaneously combusted as they passed his lips, and the next controversial syllable he utters in an interview still will be the first — but he made himself accountable for all that his team has gone through lately.
Guentzel didn’t do it because he’s a captain or an alternate; the only letters you’ll find on his sweater are on his nameplate.
No, Guentzel was showing, almost certainly without realizing it, how he has grown to be a leader on this team. There was absolutely nothing fun about what he subjected himself to, but he did it, anyway.
Crosby’s captaincy will go on until the day he retires — no one with an iota of a clue would ever expect otherwise — and the only way Guentzel figures to serve as an alternate anytime soon would be if Malkin or Kris Letang suffered an injury that sidelined him for an extended period.
But there will come a time when the Crosby-Malkin-Letang core has given up the game, and the Pittsburgh Penguins will be confronted with many major personnel decisions.
One of those will be selecting a new captain. A lot can change before that becomes necessary, of course, but it defies contention that Guentzel would be a worthy candidate for that honor.
His commitment on the ice has been evident since he broke into the league. His character away from it was on full display at KeyBank Arena Wednesday.