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Hockey

It’s been a ‘crazy’ season for Penguins rookie Jake Guentzel, the leading goal scorer in the playoffs

Penguins rookie Jake Guentzel reacts after scoring a goal during the third period of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on May 29.
(Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

Rookie forward Jake Guentzel has found many advantages and only one disadvantage to occupying the locker beside Sidney Crosby’s at the Pittsburgh Penguins’ suburban practice rink.

Crosby always draws huge crowds of reporters, as he did Tuesday to discuss the Penguins’ strange 5-3 victory over the Nashville Predators on Monday in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, and those gatherings often spill over into Guentzel’s space. The Nebraska native has learned to time his arrival until the herd thins, but the wait is a small price to pay for the benefits of getting a close-up look at Crosby’s professionalism.

“The things he does on a day-to-day basis, you just look up to. You can take so many things from him, so I’m pretty lucky,” said Guentzel, a third-round draft pick in 2013. “How he carries himself and just how he does things each day. It’s special to see him and you learn things from him.”

He might have taken some of Crosby’s scoring knack too. Guentzel shook off an eight-game goal drought to score the decisive goal Monday, taking the Penguins’ first shot in 37 minutes and beating Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne to the short side and into the upper-right corner of the net with 3 minutes 17 seconds to play in the third period. It was a welcome sight for the 22-year-old, who scored a playoff-best five goals in the Penguins’ first-round elimination of Columbus but had struggled enough afterward that coach Mike Sullivan cut his ice time and moved him from the first line to the fourth.

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During the slump his confidence “might waver a little bit but if you’re getting the chances you can take positives out of that,” he said. “You just have to stick with it and I was lucky to get one [Monday] night.”

He leads playoff scorers in goals (10) and game-winners (four), numbers he’s trying to grasp even as the crowds around his locker are taking on Crosby-like proportions.

“It’s been a crazy year,” said Guentzel, who had 16 goals and 33 points in 40 regular-season games. “How it’s going right now, you’ve just got to soak it in because you’re never sure if this will happen again.”

First loss

Losing Monday’s opener put the Predators into an unaccustomed position. They had won the first game in each of their first three playoff rounds — at Chicago, St. Louis and Anaheim — and didn’t trail in any of those series. They nearly avoided that fate Monday, when they erased a three-goal deficit and pulled even in the third period while holding the Penguins to 12 shots overall, but for once they couldn’t close the deal. The Predators also haven’t lost two straight games during their playoff run, and they hope that won’t happen Wednesday in Game 2 at PPG Paints Arena.

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Coach Peter Laviolette praised his team’s effort, calling it a confidence builder that reinforced players’ belief that they can win. But he acknowledged that the result is more important now than anything else.

“I would rather be in their shoes. I would rather have that Game 1 win because you need four out of seven. Now it’s down to six to try to grab the four,” he said. “I think there’s things we did well. We’re going to expect them to play a better game, as well. We know that we can play better ourselves still. It’s one of those situations where, if it was good, it wasn’t good enough. We got to get wins. We have to find a way to cut out one of those goals or create one more scoring chance.”

Crosby said the Penguins “found ways to execute” despite getting few scoring chances and said they must put more shots on net. Teammate Trevor Daley agreed.

“We’ve always been a team that keeps on going, keeps pushing. We didn’t do that [Monday] night,” Daley said. “Maybe it was the jitters of being in the first game of the Stanley Cup finals but we’ve got to respond to that. If we get in a situation like that we’ve got to be a lot better.”

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Fishy move

Predators fan Jake Waddell, who threw a catfish from the stands Monday and was ejected, was charged Tuesday with three misdemeanors: disorderly conduct, disrupting a meeting and possession of an instrument of crime.

Waddell bought the fish in Nashville and got it into PPG Paints Arena by squashing it and then hiding it beneath a pair of compression shorts. A Nashville radio station, 104.5 The Zone, offered to pay his fines and Nashville Mayor Megan Barry has requested leniency from Pittsburgh law enforcement officials. “We would hope that in the spirit of good sportsmanship that any charges for throwing a catfish onto the ice would be quickly dismissed,” she said on her Twitter feed, @mayormeganbarry.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen

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