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Penguins’ Jake Guentzel wants to be more than a playoff star

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The Penguins’ Jake Guentzel pursues the puck in front of Blue Jackets goaltender Joonas Korpisalo during a preseason game, Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, at PPG Paints Arena.

Jake Guentzel has a reputation, and it’s one hundreds of professional hockey players would kill to have.

He’s a playoff guy.

Last year: 10 goals in 13 games, including four in a series-clinching win over his team’s biggest rival. The year before that: 13 goals in 25 games, including a dagger to the heart of the Nashville Predators in the third period of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

His playoff goal-per-game average of 0.62 is tops among all active NHL players. Russian snipers Alex Ovechkin, Vladimir Tarasenko and Nikita Kucherov all are looking up at the 23-year-old from Minnesota on that list. Decorated Penguins stars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel are, too.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is, Guentzel wants to be known as a regular-season performer, too.

That was the No. 1 goal on his mind as the Penguins started to wind down their preseason with their final home exhibition game against the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday night.

“I think I can for sure get a lot better,” Guentzel said. “There were spurts and times where I know I needed to be better. That’s what I’m most looking forward to this year, just playing a full season.”

In the big picture, Guentzel wasn’t bad last year. He had 22 goals and 48 points in 82 games — outstanding numbers for a third-round pick in his first full season in the NHL.

Taking a closer look, though, Guentzel wanted more.

He went through stretches of 11, 10, eight and seven games without a goal. Those droughts still bother Guentzel.

“Show you can do it for a full year,” Guentzel said. “I think that’s the biggest thing.”

Given his postseason heroics, it might sound like Guentzel is a young player who is being awfully hard on himself, but get this: His coach, while still being extraordinarily complimentary of his accomplishments, thinks Guentzel is capable of more, too.

“We think so highly of him as a player,” Mike Sullivan said. “He’s a terrific player. He’s shown it at the highest-stakes environment. In the playoff runs and the Stanley Cup runs, he’s shown his ability to be the player that we all expect him to be. One of the biggest challenges is the grind of the schedule.

“When you’re playing three or four nights a week and sometimes you get into the doldrums of the schedule in January and February, your body’s sore and you’re tired. Those are the challenging times when we challenge all our players to find ways to help our team continue to win. I think that’s one area where we’d like to see Jake grow, and we’re going to try to help him in that regard.”

As a result of both his long goal droughts and construction of the Penguins roster, Guentzel found himself bouncing around the lineup quite regularly last season.

After their playoff runs together, he is thought of as Crosby’s left-hand man these days, but he played almost as many minutes without the captain by his side (591) than he did with him (760) last season.

That’s another thing Guentzel wants to change. He knows if he performs up to expectations, he’ll be permanently stapled to Crosby’s hip.

“Whenever you get the chance to play with him,” Guentzel said, “I think that’s where you want to be.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer.
You can contact Jonathan at [email protected]
or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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