Pittsburgh Penguins winger Patric Hornqvist has been essential to the Penguins since he became GM Jim Rutherford’s first splash acquisition in 2014. Hornqvist has taken a beating in front of every opposing goaltender, distracted and infuriated opponents, perhaps scored more goals from the crease as any player in the NHL and was an invaluable piece of two Stanley Cup winning teams.
And now he’s becoming an outspoken, optimistic leader of the Penguins.
The Penguins season may have hung in the balance, Tuesday night against the Colorado Avalanche. The Penguins blew another multi-goal lead, and the third loss in a row was staring at them. Again. Until Patric Hornqvist scored. And scored. Scored again. And the Penguins won, 6-3.
“Every shift, they got momentum. We couldn’t really stop the bleeding,” said Hornqvist. “We have a great group of guys. And I think this is the turning point of our season.”
Hornqvist’s hat trick in 2:47 was the fastest in team history.
Before the Hornqvist explosion, it was tense. The Penguins blew a three-goal lead to the young and very talented Colorado Avalanche. A team which must on some levels remind the Penguins of themselves, a long time ago. Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen are threatening to run away with the scoring race. Colorado whipped the Penguins last week and was threatening to do so again.
But things would have been worse, this time. A third straight loss would have invited another wave of negativity, especially after earning a commanding 3-0 lead.
But Hornqvist charged forward.
Regardless of his linemates, Horqnvist charged the net. He had a breakaway and a wrap-around attempt. None of those were successful. In the third period, Hornqvist scored a power-play goal from in front of the net. His power spin around the goaltender lit the lamp.
A minute later, the Penguins intercepted Ian Cole’s breakout pass and converted it into a rush. Instead of looking for a perfect play or set up something pretty which wasn’t there, Hornqvist let it rip. It deflected off the defenseman, off the ice, skipped high and dribbled through Colorado goalie Semyon Varlamov.
“The two last ones, they were lucky ones,” said an amused Hornqvist.
In adversity, real character is revealed. Every player is a great teammate when times are good. Every player is confident when wins are piling up. But things have not been great for the Penguins. Losses have piled up where wins used to be easy. The speed which they spread across the NHL is now used against them. And things which used to work are sometimes albatrosses holding the Penguins back, including on the power play.
And Hornqvist had no problem speaking for a power play which includes the core of the team–Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang.
“We’ve just got to simplify the game. We’ve been together for so long, and we’ve been successful,” Hornqvist made sure to add. “Do what you’re good at. Make sure you support your teammates.”
In the midst of a near-disastrous 10 game slide (1-7-2), it was Hornqvist who stepped forward to speak to reporters. On two occasions, he asserted, “One shift will turn our season around. And it’s going to happen (next game).”
In the last nine games, including in Ottawa in which Hornqvist promised the Penguins would reverse the skid (but did not), the maniacal Swedish forward has eight goals.
Multiple players have referenced the heavy frustration of the recent past. That specter reared it’s head Tuesday night.
“When a team is pouring it on like that, they had three already, it’s like just get out of this period,” said Penguins goaltender Casey DeSmith. And indeed the Penguins were merely trying to survive to the horn.
Colorado continued to storm the Penguins at the beginning of the third period, as well. The Penguins have been rattled this season, and one could feel the team wondering if this was another night in which things started well only to sour.
But not Patric Hornqvist. He simply won’t let negativity get a word. This season, his play has been a bright spot in some dark moments. And so it was fitting as the Penguins searched for a lifeline, it was Hornqvist who answered.
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan also let the praise flow.
“His positive energy is so evident when he’s around our group,” Mike Sullivan nearly gushed. “He plays the game so hard, he takes so many cross-checks, he goes to the dirty areas, and he competes and battles. He just wants to win.”
Free Penguins hats rained from the rafters after Hornqvist made history. No, really, an organization which has featured all-time greats Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Sidney Crosby, and Evgeni Malkin has never had a faster hat trick than Hornqvist’s.
In the same place where Marc-Andre Fleury once led with positivity and infectious personality, Hornqvist is perpetually chattering. And everyone sees the beating he takes in every game.
“You have one of those days sometimes,” he said. “The puck, it just comes right to your stick.”
Or sometimes a player wins enough battles that he’s in the right position at the right time. As Evgeni Malkin pressured Ian Cole into a giveaway, Hornqvist followed. When the loose puck came towards Hornqvist in the slot, he didn’t look to pass or make a pretty play.
He shot it. And that’s another lead from Hornqvist the coaches hope the team follows.