Winger Jake Guentzel defines Penguins’ style of physical play
It’s a trivia question so difficult, the man who is the answer wouldn’t have got it right.
Now that heavyweight Ryan Reaves is off the Penguins roster, sent to Vegas at the NHL trade deadline, who leads the team in hits this season?
It’s winger Jake Guentzel, all 5-foot-11, 180 pounds of him.
“I did not know that,” Guentzel said. “It’s kind of weird to think about. I would have never guessed that.”
Two kernels of truth can be gleaned from the surprising stat.
First, Guentzel is more physical than his appearance and style of play indicates. He has delivered 119 hits this season. That’s more than Washington’s Alex Ovechkin, Boston’s David Backes, Edmonton’s Zack Kassian and a handful of other players who are better known for their bruising ways.
“Just kind of chipping bodies and trying to separate some pucks and get some turnovers,” Guentzel explained with a shrug. “That’s just playing with compete.”
Second, if the Penguins are going to beat the odds and complete their three-peat bid this season, it won’t be because they’ve battered their opponents into submission.
It’s no surprise the Penguins subscribe to that philosophy. They won the last two Stanley Cup championships without frequently running opposing defensemen through the boards or bulldozing opposing forwards away from the net front.
They doubled down at the trade deadline too, sending away not only Reaves but also physical defender Ian Cole.
When it comes to gaining a competitive advantage, the Penguins have made it perfectly clear they favor speed over strength as the weapon of choice.
That’s not to say coach Mike Sullivan would prefer his players never approach an opponent with bad intentions. He just defines physical play differently than most.
“With our team, what we try to define it as is just a compete level and a mindset and winning puck battles and being strong in the battle areas, taking hits to make plays,” Sullivan said. “We try to define what physicality is for our team, and then we try to encourage our guys to make sure we have that dimension.”
For Guentzel and the team’s other forwards, the focus is on being consistently pesky on the forecheck.
“I just think it’s making it hard on their ‘D’ on the forecheck and wearing them down,” Guentzel said. “That’s the biggest thing we need to do. We need to chip every body we can.”
For the team’s defensemen, the idea is to use physical contact to make attacking their net as inconvenient as possible.
“Everyone uses different tactics depending on their size and strength,” defenseman Jamie Oleksiak said. “It’s just kind of getting chips on guys so they don’t have so much speed. If you bump a guy or chip a guy, he might not be able to get into the rush quicker or get back as fast.”
In the battle areas in front of the net, the key is being crafty.
“There are little things that guys can do with their sticks to discourage guys from getting in that area,” Oleksiak said ominously.
The Penguins’ hits leader on defense this season, Olli Maatta, is probably just as surprising as Guentzel, but that unexpected stat is a little easier to explain. The mild-mannered Finn leads the way with 104 hits because he’s the only player on the team’s blue line to play in all 66 games this season.
The 6-7 Oleksiak, with 100 hits in 31 games, will probably pass him before the week is out.
“It comes naturally being a bigger guy,” Oleksiak said. “It’s something I can use to my advantage out there, be a guy that other guys don’t want to go up against. That’s something I’m trying to bring to my game.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.