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Islanders hold Guentzel without a point for three straight games

Through four games against the Islanders, Guentzel has just one assist. What will it take for him to reach twine?

Adam Pelech defends against Bryan Rust and Jake Guentzel on May 20, 2021 in Uniondale, New York. Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images

Jake Guentzel likes to score from the low slot.

That’s a quality we’ve seen from him since 2016, in his his very first NHL game on Nov. 21.

While looking at Guentzel’s unblocked shot charts throughout his career— especially in his last three seasons, from 2018-19 to 2020-21, when he became a permanent fixture on Sidney Crosby’s line and began to average around 20 minutes a night— a clear pattern emerges.

Most of Guentzel’s shots come from right in front of the net, the low slot or the edge of the face-off circles. That relentless pursuit of the puck down low has paid big dividends. The winger’s 23 goals through the 2020-21 regular season trail only Crosby for the team lead.

But Guentzel has been held to just a single secondary assist (in the Game 1 overtime loss at home on May 16) in this opening-round series against the New York Islanders.

For many players, that may not sound like a huge aberration; for Guentzel, it’s a rarity.

The 4-1 Game 4 loss on May 22 marks the first time this calendar year he’s been held off the scoreboard for three consecutive games. In fact, he was only held without a point for two straight games twice in the regular season.

Natural Stat Trick’s shot charts confirm one thing for Games 1 through 4: Guentzel is still recording shots from the low slot at a higher rate than any other Penguins player.

Not all of them are getting through; we see a few missed shots and a few blocked attempts. But the shots are there, and at a higher rate than during this regular season; Guentzel averaged under three shots a game in 2020-21, and he put seven pucks on net in Game 2 alone.

But none of them are getting past Islanders’ goaltender Semyon Varlamov. What’s keeping Guentzel— and this first line, which was held pointless in Game 4 and has been limited to just two goals in four games, despite being responsible for nearly a third of the team’s production in the division-clinching regular season— from breaking through against the Islanders?

During Crosby’s post-game media availability on May 22, he noted that although the first line had some good opportunities in the second period of Game 4, the Penguins’ offense in general struggled to maintain a forceful o-zone presence.

“Usually it’s either not doing a good enough job keeping pucks in their end and getting zone time, and on the flip side sometimes just coming out of our end a little bit cleaner,” Crosby said. “I think for the most part though, a lot of it has to do with our zone time, and on the offensive side if we’re able to wear teams down and put them on their heels and prevent them from getting a good forecheck, whether because they’re tired, because they have to go change, that sort of thing.”

The Penguins focusing on maintaining an aggressive forecheck for these next few days of practice could be just what Guentzel needs to keep getting those low-slot looks through at Varlamov. He’ll find a way to score eventually; it’s just a matter if that breakthrough will come fast enough to help the Penguins regain a series lead in a crucial Game 5 at home on Monday, May 24.