ST. PAUL, Minn. -- A summer of angst was invested, both by the Penguins and their passionate fan base, on how to solve an array of perceived problems. How to get rid of Phil Kessel. How to fix Evgeni Malkin. How to harness Kris Letang. How to rocket poor Jack Johnson into the sun.
Funny, but did everyone forget Patric Hornqvist?
Even though he was coming off a career-low 18 goals in 2018-19, even though injuries appeared to have cost him an edge, both in speed and temperament, even though he'll turn 33 on a roster that's allegedly aspiring to get fresher, and even though he'll consume $5.3 million of salary cap space for half a decade ... there was barely a syllable spoken about him, at least from what I'd heard.
Why was that, I wonder?
How did the single most pivotal player leading into the two most recent Stanley Cups, meaning the one most responsible for transforming the franchise's pussyfooting, perimeter-bound ways, get left off the public panic list?
Well, suffice it to say, the answer might have superseded the question, anyway. Because the Hornqvist we're witnessing in the very early going of this NHL season, including the goal, the assist and the general mass mayhem he caused in the Penguins' 7-4 whacking of the Wild on this Saturday night at Xcel Energy Center ... that was classic Hornqvist.
And not much at all like the one from last year, right, Patric?
"Yeah, I don't know," he shot back right away, with the trademark scoff, when I asked that afterward. "I feel good. I think the team is playing really well, too, so that helps."
Mike Sullivan wouldn't really bite when I brought it up with him, either:
That's OK. And it's expected on both counts. Hornqvist's an immensely proud individual. And Sullivan, as one can see in the clip above, admires the guy like a father to a son.
So I'll go ahead and ask everyone else instead: How different has it felt to see Hornqvist popping three goals already this season, as compared to the three he managed in the final 40 games of last season, including playoffs?
You know, like this:
Only thing special about that sequence on a first-period power play was Sidney Crosby's virtuoso zone entry. From there, Justin Schultz picked his chin up, found Hornqvist, and the puck was redirected behind Devan Dubnyk for the game's icebreaker.
But then, that's what Hornqvist's always done to get his goals. Only now, he's back to rabidly planting himself near the paint. Even in warmups now, while teammates are snapping shots from the blue line, he's hovering near Matt Murray, maneuvering his body and stick -- and his helmetless head, I might add, since he's the only one who does that -- to begin envisioning game settings.
He's also looking stronger on the puck and sharper with it, I might add. Here's another power-play point Saturday night, this in the third period for a Jake Guentzel tap-in to raise the score to 6-2:
And then, of course, there's this:
See as much of that last year as in years prior?
Now, never mind that the referees, Brad Meier and T.J. Luxmore, insanely sent off Hornqvist with a double-minor on offsetting penalties, presumably because it's prohibited to be crosschecked, facewashed, choked, then kidney-punched twice by a blocker in the same sitting.
No, just check out the expressions on the Minnesota player's faces.
Particularly Dubnyk. Dude's enraged. Unseen in that clip is that, once Hornqvist began skating to the box, Dubnyk skated into the near corner to collect the puck and fire it in Hornqvist's direction.
Hard to believe, but Dubnyk would get yanked within minutes following a five-goal flop on 23 shots, and he, like his team, would fall to 0-4 on the occasion of their home opener.
"It was just part of the play," Dubnyk would downplay to reporters in the home locker room. "I wasn’t overly upset. I was completely calm. He kept grabbing my mask, so that’s the way it is."
Yep. And the Stanley Cup parade's set to start up the hill at Saint Paul Cathedral next July.
"If teams are mad at me or paying attention to me, that means I'm doing something right," Hornqvist began when asked if maybe he'd gotten to the Wild as a whole. "That's my job. We all have different roles out here."
Pressed on Dubnyk in particular, Hornqvist answered, "Yeah, I don't know. I just think we played really well. We got a lot of pucks there, created a lot of scrums, found a few loose pucks. But they did a good job getting pucks to our net, too, and our goalie was coming up big for us when we needed him to."
A dig there?
If so, it's true: Matt Murray was far better than his four-goal line might suggest, as the Wild recorded 12 of the game's 16 official high-danger scoring chances.
"I have to face him in practice, and we have our own competitions," Murray was saying of Hornqvist. "I'm glad he's on our side."
So's the captain, clearly.
"He sets the tone with that kind of effort, that kind of compete level," Crosby told me. "A lot of guys probably don't enjoy playing against him. You knock him down, he gets right back up. But you know, I think we expect that every night."
Every year, too.
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