by Rob Joyce
It’s now a best-of-three series in the Stanley Cup Final, after the Penguins took both games in Pittsburgh and the Predators responded with two convincing wins of their own in Nashville. At this point, with a championship so close, it’s expected that the best players on each team raise their game, and that’s held true – case in point, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby are the top two point-getters this playoff season, and Filip Forsberg is tied for second in goals.
But it’s those unexpected performances by role players that is often the difference-maker, and this year that’s undoubtedly belonged to Jake Guentzel. The 22-year-old had a good rookie season, with 16 goals and 17 assists in 40 games, but it certainly didn’t point to signs of a playoff explosion. His 13 playoff goals leads the league, five of which have been game-winners. He’s just a single tally away from the NHL record for playoff goals by a rookie, and joins this list of rookies who took the playoffs by storm in their first go-around:
Dino Ciccarelli, 1981:
The man Guentzel is chasing for the goals mark, the Hall of Famer’s playoff debut with the North Stars in 1981 saw Ciccarelli set records for goals (14) and points (21) in just 19 games. Minnesota would reach its first Stanley Cup Final that year, losing in five games to the dynastic Islanders.
Ken Dryden, 1971:
Another future Hall of Famer, Dryden was a bright-eyed 23-year-old for Montreal in 1971. He played just six games in the regular season as a late call-up (though he went 6-0 with a 1.65 goals against average) but it was enough to put him in net for the playoffs, and the rest is history. He led the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup, won the Conn Smythe Award as playoff MVP and was a stalwart in net for the remainder of his brief career, winning six Cups. In a twist, the season after winning the Conn Smythe he took home the Calder Award as the league’s top rookie in 1972.
Ron Hextall, 1987:
The 22-year-old was a workhorse in net for the Flyers in 1986-87, starting 66 games and leading the league in wins (37), minutes and save percentage. That stellar play carried over into the playoffs, where Hextall led the Flyers all the way to Game 7 of the Cup Final, losing 3-1 to the Gretzky/Messier/Kurri/Coffey Oilers. For his efforts he was awarded the Conn Smythe, just the fourth time a player from the losing side earned the award.
Ville Leino, 2010:
Despite playing for Detroit in the playoffs in 2009, the Finn was still a rookie in 2009-10 when he made another postseason trip, this time with the Flyers. In his 19 games he tied Dino Ciccarelli’s rookie record with 21 points (7 goals, 14 assists) in helping Philadelphia come within two wins of a Stanley Cup. The most obscure player on this list, Leino only scored 21 or more points in two of his six NHL seasons.
Claude Lemieux/Patrick Roy, 1986:
These two share their honor in helping the Canadiens hoist the Stanley Cup. The 20-year-old Lemieux began building his reputation as a playoff killer with his 10-goal effort that included two overtime winners – in Game 7 of the Adams Division Finals against the Whalers, and in Game 3 of the conference final against the Rangers.
As for Roy, also 20 at the time, the netminder began a Hall of Fame career as a platoon, earning the starting job in the playoffs. He then proceeded to go 15-5 with a 1.92 goals against and .923 save percentage, becoming the youngest player to ever win the Conn Smythe, an award he’d win three times.
Matt Murray, 2016:
Post-concussion syndrome forced Marc-Andre Fleury out of action late last season, forcing 21-year-old Murray into action for the postseason. With just 13 games under his belt, Murray played his way into a starting role even as Fleury became healthy, going 15-6 with a 2.08 goals against and a .923 save percentage in helping Pittsburgh win the Stanley Cup. Still a rookie this year, Murray usurped a struggling Fleury midway through this year’s playoff run, and he is again in net, two wins away from his second Stanley Cup before turning 23.
Cam Ward, 2006:
Starting 28 games for Carolina in the regular season, Ward entered in relief for a struggling Martin Gerber in the opening round against Montreal. It was a job he wouldn’t relinquish, as the rookie sparked a run for the Hurricanes that would end in the franchise winning its first Stanley Cup. In 23 games Ward had a 2.14 goals against, making 22-of-23 saves in a Game 7 win against Edmonton. He became the first rookie goaltender since Patrick Roy to lead his team to a Cup as Ward won the Conn Smythe.