Jake Guentzel looks like one of those kids who might come along with hockey teams — maybe a coach's son or the little brother of one of the players — but emerge as a star in the game itself.
He's listed at 5-foot-10 and said he came up just a few pounds short of his goal of 170 pounds. His dad, who actually is a coach — Mike Guentzel, the associate head coach at Minnesota — has said his son, who just turned 19, probably looks closer to 12.
So aren't Guentzel's UNO teammates worried about his safety in the sometimes rough-and-tumble world of college hockey?
“When he first showed up, we were all concerned,” said senior Michael Young, a 6-foot-3, 212-pound defenseman. “But after seeing him in practice ... he can handle himself. He's really smart, one of the smartest players I've ever seen, and he knows how to keep away from things and how to protect himself.”
Said Jaycob Megna, the 6-6 and 210-pound defenseman: “He really doesn't put himself in any spots where he's getting manhandled or knocked off the puck. He does a good job shielding it. He stays away from trouble while still getting into the good areas, having scoring chances and making plays.”
And he is making plays, too.
A third-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins, 71st overall, this past summer, Guentzel had a goal and an assist in the first action of his college career — a weekend split with Bentley. His second-period power play goal Saturday was the game winner in an eventual 4-2 victory.
“Everybody (in college) is just faster and stronger, so you have to account for that and be that much faster to be successful,” Guentzel said.
After earning USHL Rookie of the Year honors last season while recording 29 goals and 44 assists for Sioux City, Guentzel spent the first week of his college hockey career as the center on a line that includes senior Johnnie Searfoss and freshman Austin Ortega.
That group was UNO's second line on the power play, behind the high-scoring combination of Ryan Walters, Josh Archibald and Dominic Zombo.
Guentzel also was impressive in winning 20 of 33 faceoffs (a team-best 60.6 percent for those who stood in for more than 16).
And his goal was a beauty, using a backpedaling defenseman as a screen and shooting it between his legs and then up and over the shoulder of the goalie.
But his playmaking skills may have stood out the most.
“He never looks like he's moving that fast, but he's always got the puck and no one is taking it away from him,” Megna said.
Playing alongside Guentzel, Searfoss had a hat trick in the Oct. 7 exhibition win over the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. Ortega had a team-high 10 shots on goal in the Bentley series.
“He plays fast when he has to ... and when he's got the puck, Johnnie knows that he's going to get it,” UNO coach Dean Blais said. “Get your stick down and go to the net and Jake will make a play.”
Guentzel, born in Omaha (where he lived for six months while his dad coached the Omaha Lancers) grew up following college hockey. Not only has his dad been a long-time assistant (with Minnesota, Colorado College and UNO), his brothers Ryan (Notre Dame) and Gabe (Colorado College) were both solid college players.
His father told him what to expect. “You've just got to be ready on weekends,” Guentzel said. “You only have games twice every weekend, and you've got to bring your best because it's not a long season.”
The Guentzel family anticipates a growth spurt from Jake, hopefully this year, like that of his brothers.
In the meantime, Guentzel, Ortega (5-8 and 165) and Jono Davis (5-8 and 155) are three freshmen who are expected to continue playing an oversized role with their undersized frames.
“We're a little smaller team than we've been the last couple years,” Searfoss said. “The freshmen who have come in are really dynamic players who can score goals.”
So far, their transition to college hockey has gone well.
The Mavs are hoping for more this weekend in a road series at 0-2 Northern Michigan, which was swept by No. 2 Wisconsin last weekend. The puck drops at 6:07 p.m. CST both Friday and Saturday.
“The older guys have taken us freshmen under their wings and have made us feel comfortable,” Guentzel said. “They've made us feel like part of the team.”