PITTSBURGH (AP) — The guy that scored the winner in Games 3 and 4 of the Stanley Cup Final doesn’t even have a locker in the Nashville Predators’ dressing room.
The 22-year-old who leads the NHL in playoff goals and is a legit contender for the Conn Smythe trophy watched the Pittsburgh Penguins lift the Stanley Cup last spring on TV as a minor leaguer just getting his feet wet as a pro.
Sure, technically Frederick Gaudreau and Jake Guentzel are rookies. Neither is playing like one.
Maybe that’s because by June, the NHL’s sprawling season is in its ninth month and the bubble that surrounds each club during the journey deep into the playoffs insulates players from the outside forces that can make the big picture seem, well, too big.
“It’s kind of an ‘ignorance is bliss’ kind of mentality,” said Penguins forward Conor Sheary, who had four goals and six assists in 23 games as a 24-year-old rookie during Pittsburgh’s 2016 Cup run. “You don’t know what to expect, you just come in and play hockey.”
While the expectations in places like Pittsburgh are high every year, it’s a burden largely shouldered by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. They take great pains to bring the new faces along. Sheary played on Crosby’s line throughout the 2016 playoffs and his stall in the dressing room was within arm’s reach of Crosby’s, where Sheary soaked up wisdom and insight from the superstar. It’s been much the same for Guentzel this time around.
“Growing up, you watch him, so to be honest it’s pretty special,” said Guentzel, whose 13 postseason goals are one off the NHL playoff rookie record set by Dino Ciccarelli with the Minnesota North Stars in 1981. “I’m trying to make the most of it. He kind of told me just to play my game.”
It’s a message that permeates in Nashville’s dressing room, too. Gaudreau spent three years with the Predators’ American Hockey League affiliate in Milwaukee before he finally earned a call-up this season, picking up an assist in nine appearances. He sat for the first month of the playoffs before making his postseason debut in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals against Anaheim.
All Gaudreau has done with the opportunity is become the first player since Johnny Harms with the 1944 Chicago Blackhawks to score the first three goals of his NHL career in a Cup final.
Heady territory for an undrafted free agent once considered too small (6-feet, 179 pounds) to be an impact player at this level.
“I live some stuff,” Gaudreau said after Nashville’s Game 4 win evened the series at 2-2 heading into Thursday night’s Game 5 in Pittsburgh. “Every time I was trying to get better mentally. I’m getting to that point where I think I can handle all (these) situation(s).”
Maybe, but what works for one player doesn’t work for another. Matt Murray was supposed to be the goalie of the future for the Penguins last season when an injury to Marc-Andre Fleury on the eve of the playoffs made him very much the goalie of the present. He went 15-6 with a .923 save percentage to win the Cup at the age of 22.
Having a dominant team in front of him helped. So did a “what, me worry?” attitude that made him seemingly immune to the stakes. Looking back, maybe having been there and done that isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
“If you approach things with no fear it doesn’t matter if you’re a rookie or a veteran,” Murray said. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve been there or not.”
It certainly hasn’t mattered during the Cup final. Nine of the 24 total goals have come from first-year players. Guentzel has four. Gaudreau has three. Nashville’s Pontus Aberg and Pittsburgh’s Scott Wilson have the other two. Guentzel pumped in the winners in the opening two games in Pittsburgh. Gaudreau did the same during the series’ debut in Smashville.
It is the first time in the history of a league that’s been around a century that it’s happened.
These rookies are playing in a league that’s evolving, even if the defense is better as it always is in the postseason. Experience helps. So does having legs that can go and go and go.
“The teams that are having success, I think speed is a common denominator that runs through their lineups,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “I think young players with young legs have the ability to have an impact.”
Of course there’s a learning curve. It’s just not as long as it used to be. The evidence will be on the ice Thursday, when Guentzel could take another step to becoming first rookie since goaltender Cam Ward with Carolina in 2006 to win the Smythe as playoff MVP. Or Gaudreau could inch closer to earning a permanent stall in the Predators dressing room.
“I don’t think a player ever ’arrives,’” Sullivan said. “But I think they’re more prepared than they’ve ever been when they do get that first opportunity to play at the NHL level.”
And more prepared than ever to make the most of it.