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It's a small hockey world for Guentzel

by Nicole Jelinek / Pittsburgh Penguins

Mike Guentzel has spent many years on the coaching staff for the University of Minnesota men's ice hockey team.

Guentzel, who re-joined the coaching staff in 2011 as associate head coach after three years away from the program, played defense for Minnesota from 1981-85 and served as an assistant coach for the Gophers from 1994-08.

During that time, Guentzel actually recruited both Matt Cullen and Phil Kessel. Cullen, who played for his father Terry at Moorhead High School, ultimately chose to attend St. Cloud State. Kessel, however, ended up playing with the Gophers for one season in 2005-06 - where Guentzel's son Jake served as the stick boy for his dad's team.

"It was pretty special," Jake said with a smile. "Being a stick boy when Kessel was there is something that is kind of fun now. It only made me want to play hockey that much more."

Now, years later, Jake Guentzel is playing with both Kessel and Cullen in the NHL for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

"I recruited Matt Cullen , so to speak, and recruited Phil, and now he's playing on the same team as them," Mike Guentzel said. "It was nice, I think when Jake walked in the locker room, there was a name recognition. And certainly those guys knew him and looked after him, and that was great too."

Jake Guentzel laughed and said that Kessel remembered him a little when he was first called up to the Penguins. With Mike, his mother Sally and brother Ryan all in the stands at PPG Paints Arena, they watched as Jake scored twice in his NHL debut on Nov. 21 against the New York Rangers - playing on a line with Kessel.  

"They have been huge to me," Guentzel said of his parents. "Just their reactions after my (first career) goal, I think that just shows how proud they are. I don't think I would be here without them, so I am lucky to have them as parents."

Jake, now 22, said that Kessel has been great to him since he's been on the team, and it's funny because his memories as stick boy during Kessel's collegiate career still stick out.

"The biggest memory is that (Kessel) is from Wisconsin," Guentzel recalled. "When the Gophers went back and played Wisconsin, he scored a pretty big goal and skated around the whole rink just giving them the whole 'make some noise, make some noise.'"

While Mike was the one who got Jake into hockey, he decided to play at the University of Nebraska-Omaha to gain more experience.

"I kind of just wanted to get away from my dad a little bit," Guentzel joked. "I wanted to do my own thing, so I thought it was a good fit. The coaching staff was great there."

Guentzel joined Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the end of last season following the conclusion of his junior year, and had six points (2G-4A) in 11 AHL regular-season games before notching 14 points (5G-9A) in just 10 playoff contests.

Guentzel continued to be one of the top offensive threats in the league this season, earning him that call-up back in November. After being sent back in December, Pittsburgh's third-round pick was re-called again in January while leading the AHL in goals (21) and ranking second in points (42).

This time around, Guentzel feels much more comfortable at the NHL level.

"It has been crazy because you have to adjust and speed is so much faster at this level, so it has taken a little bit, but I feel better now," he said.

Pens head coach Mike Sullivan has said that part of what makes Guentzel such a good player are his offensive instincts. He has the ability to play alongside the Pens' elite forwards like Kessel, Evgeni Malkin and most recently, Sidney Crosby.

The rookie first played on a line with Crosby in Saturday's 4-3 overtime loss to Arizona, and though they didn't get on the scoresheet, the chemistry was evident. They created a number of quality chances, with Crosby left shaking his head as to why none of them fell.

"We had some really good looks," Crosby said on Monday. "Sometimes there's just no explanation as to why it doesn't go in. But we had some really, really good chances. Jake had a couple. He set me up for a couple. We're in and around there, so hopefully it can go in the back of the net here."

That happened for them in Tuesday's 4-0 win over Vancouver. Their line with Chris Kunitz was again buzzing, and they got rewarded with one goal when Crosby set up Guentzel in the third period for his sixth tally in 18 games.

"He's got great speed," Crosby said of Guentzel, who's 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds. "He's not a big guy, but he gets in there and creates loose pucks and wins battles. I think there's a lot of things that help him generate. His hockey sense and his speed are what probably sticks out the most. It's good to see that he's playing with a lot of confidence and making plays out there."

Guentzel has been able to adapt quickly wherever he has been needed. And for how impressive he's been, what stands out to his teammates the most is that he's only going to get better.

"I've played with him a couple of games," Kessel said. "He is a skilled player. He plays hard out there. He is smart, he thinks the game well, and he is going to have a long career here."

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