CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa — Count Pittsburgh Penguins winger Patric Hornqvist as done with training camp and preseason.
“It’s always the same, I love to play the game,” he grinned when PHN asked the high-energy Swede if this regular season seemed more important than the last. “I just want to start to play real games.”
Just in case Hornqvist needed additional motivation. real games begin Oct. 4 against defending Stanley Cup champions Washington Capitals. The Penguins trimmed their roster to 27, Sunday night. Only the final decisions on players like Zach Aston-Reese, Derek Grant, Juuso Riikola and the goaltending battle remain.
Tuesday, the Penguins began the real line shuffling. No longer was Daniel Sprong on the Crosby line, nor Zach Aston-Reese on the Malkin line. The Penguins unveiled a lineup which looked more like an opening night roster. Hornqvist skated on the right side with Sidney Crosby and Jack Guentzel. Carl Hagelin was back on the left wing of the Malkin line with Phil Kessel.
Dominik Simon and Bryan Rust flanked Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan played the middle of the fourth line with Matt Cullen on the left and Daniel Sprong.
Hornqvist is no stranger to playing on Crosby’s right side, nor is Hornqvist unsure of what the job entails. Hornqvist knows well what is expected of him and embraces the role.
“I think we have pretty good chemistry. It’s all about me trying to get (Crosby) the puck,” said Hornqvist. “Work really well in the corners, try to give him the puck and go to the net to create that little extra space for him.”
Hornqvist played the right wing for most of the Penguins 2016 Stanley Cup run, and he did precisely that. Hornqvist has been one of the most prolific and durable net-front presence wingers in the NHL over the past several years. The gritty Swedish winger has played in at least 70 games in four of the last five seasons and the Penguins rewarded him with a five-year, $26.5 million contract, last February.
Last season, Crosby and Hornqvist stumbled together. In 2015-16, they scored 20 goals at 5v5 in 313 minutes together over 63 games. Last season, they played 303 minutes together but scored only eight goals. Worse, they allowed nine goals. However, when reunited in the playoffs, they popped for 10 goals in just 79 minutes.
in the regular season, Hornqvist was nearly unstoppable with Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin. However, in the absence of dynamic options for Crosby’s right wing, including Daniel Sprong’s inefficacy, the Penguins are again going to the Crosby-Hornqvist well.
“I just go out there, do my best, and try to get open for (Crosby)” Hornqvist said. “Me and Jake (Guentzel), we’re good to get those pucks down low and create that extra space for (Crosby),” Hornqvist said. “In the neutral zone, just try to get the puck to Sid in the middle and get speed. That’s what it’s all about.”
Hornqvist has no illusions or delusions of grandeur. He knows Crosby’s success is team success and is willing to do what is necessary. Crosby likes to play a speed game and isn’t necessarily the best fit for Hornqvist but Horqnvist may be the best Penguins fit for Crosby. So, Hornqvist is back on the top line…for now.