PITTSBURGH (AP) — Jake Guentzel still finds himself staring. And really, it’s kind of hard to blame him.
A year ago he was fresh out of Nebraska-Omaha trying to find his legs with the Pittsburgh Penguins’ AHL affiliate, all speed and youth and talent anxious at what the future might hold.
And here he is now, the youngest member of the NHL’s hottest line, sharing the ice with his childhood idol thinking to himself, ‘Yes, that really is Sidney Crosby over there.”
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“It’s crazy,” Guentzel said with a shrug.
And at the moment kind of unstoppable for the defending Stanley Cup champions, who remain in the thick of the Metropolitan Division race with Washington and Columbus despite missing 66 percent of its starting blue line and center Evgeni Malkin, who is out with an upper body injury that will keep him out of the lineup in Buffalo on Tuesday.
Yet the Penguins have stayed afloat anyway thanks in part to Crosby’s usual brilliance and an unexpected alliance created on the fly by head coach Mike Sullivan.
Developing chemistry with the best player in the world can be an inexact science. Crosby, the 22-year-old Guentzel and 24-year-old Conor Sheary have created some almost instantaneously since Sullivan threw them together against Edmonton earlier this month.
In the six games since they’ve started hopping over the boards together, they’ve combined for 10 of Pittsburgh’s 20 goals and racked up 16 assists.
Every red-light moment of Crosby’s natural hat trick in Sunday’s 4-0 victory over Florida came courtesy of the sticks of his precocious linemates, the ones who make up for in enthusiasm and innate hockey IQ what they lack in experience.
“The main thing is that we’re consistently getting chances,” said Crosby, who leads the NHL with 40 goals. “With that, it doesn’t matter who gets them, they’ll go in. Those guys have a ton of speed and they’re strong on pucks and making plays. We’ll continue to get better.”
They’ll certainly continue to play together indefinitely, though Crosby isn’t one for trying to come up with some sort of gimmicky nickname like the “HBK” — Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel — that played so well together during last spring’s run to the Cup a local restaurant chain created a sandwich in their honor.
“I never got into the lines or the nicknames and I’m not going to start now,” Crosby said with a laugh. “I’ll leave that up to you guys.”
At 29, Crosby’s old enough to know that nothing lasts forever. “HBK” might have been a revelation last summer, but they’ve long since split up.
For now, Sid and the Kids (just a suggestion) will keep doing what they’re doing, which is mainly keeping defenses scrambling to keep up.
“Sid’s the glue there that holds that line together but certainly the three of them, to a man they’ve all played terrific for us,” Sullivan said.
While playing alongside Crosby certainly helps, Sheary and Guentzel are more than keeping up. Sheary managed just seven goals in 44 games as a rookie in 2015-16. He’s already at 20 goals in 51 so far this season, a 5-foot-8 gnat in skates relentlessly working his way into tight spaces or beating opponents to loose pucks.
They also keep their heads up rather than developing tunnel vision about getting to the net and hoping for the best. Call it the byproduct of knowing Crosby is liable to try to find them at any moment while trying to thread a pass few others can make.
Crosby and Sheary both offered Guentzel — who had two goals during his auspicious NHL debut in a loss to the New York Rangers in November — the same bit of advice so he wouldn’t get too wide-eyed.
“I may have told him once or twice just play your game,” said Sheary, who went through a similar indoctrination process of learning to play with Crosby last season. “Other than that he’s a smart enough player, he’s a good enough player. He can play with anyone.”
It certainly looks that way. While it’s hard to imagine Steph Curry or LeBron James hitting the court with two rookies in tow, Crosby has embraced the opportunity.
While Sullivan stressed that Crosby remains “the glue,” having two players who seem immune to the pressure that comes with playing in the spotlight with the face of the NHL helps.
“I don’t think one’s a scorer or one’s a passer,” Sullivan said. “I think they’re hockey players and they just play hockey. When the shot’s there, they shoot. When it’s not, they have the vision and the awareness and they see it.”
And just as importantly, they’re oblivious to the pressure of the moment. A quality that will be in high demand when Pittsburgh begins its quest to become the first team in two decades to repeat next month. No staring allowed.
“Growing up you watch (Crosby),” Guentzel said. “So to be honest it’s pretty special. I’m trying to make the most of it.”