Ron Cook: It all starts out in front for the Penguins' Patric Hornqvist
March 20, 2017 12:00 AM
Penguins forward Patric Hornqvist battles in front of the net against the Florida Panthers Sunday at PPG Paints Arena.
By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
There was emotion early in the Penguins’ 4-0 win Sunday against the Florida Panthers when the home team honored Panthers winger Jaromir Jagr as one of the NHL’s all-time 100 greats with a moving video tribute on the big PPG Paints Arena scoreboard. Pittsburgh hasn’t always rained love on Jagr, but the standing ovation that followed was long and warm. It was a prelude to the inevitable day when the Penguins retire his No. 68 jersey. If he ever retires, of course.
There was drama late as Sidney Crosby, with a natural hat trick in his hockey pants’ pocket, tried to get a fourth goal for the first time in his marvelous career. It didn’t happen, but Crosby seemed satisfied with the win and the fact he’s now at 40 goals with 11 games left. “You know he wants 50. He’s pushing for it,” Marc-Andre Fleury said.
Then, there was Patric Hornqvist’s goal, the first of the game. It wasn’t just the winning goal. It was the best goal, the toughest goal, the prettiest goal. Jordy Mercer and David Freese had doubles for the Pirates in their spring training game Sunday against Toronto, but they didn’t put a better swing on the ball than Hornqvist did when he swatted the puck out of the air by Florida goaltender James Reimer at 16:14 of the first period.
“He did the exact same thing in warm-ups before the game,” Fleury said. “They all rush at me at the end and try to score. He batted one out of the air just like he did in the game.”
That puck went in, too, proving that Fleury wasn’t unbeatable on this final day of winter and that maybe, just maybe, the Pirates might consider Hornqvist if they end up trading Andrew McCutchen.
“We don’t have baseball in Sweden so, no, I’m not a baseball player,” Hornqvist said, making it clear he isn’t interested in a career change.
That’s probably just as well. I’m thinking the Penguins wouldn’t allow Hornqvist to switch sports. It would be absurd to suggest he’s as valuable to the team as Crosby, Evgeni Malkin or Kris Letang, but no one in the organization wants to think about going into the playoffs without him. He does what no one else on the team does with such regularity and toughness.
“He’s a guy who will continue to go to the front of the net no matter what,” Crosby said.
When Crosby says “no matter what,” he means it. Hornqvist has had two concussions this season, missing six games in November and five more this month before returning to the lineup Friday night against the New Jersey Devils. He knows all the latest information about concussions and their possible long-term effects, but he doesn’t hesitate to take his familiar spot in front of or near the opposing goaltender.
“I can’t be worried about that. I’m healthy now,” Hornqvist said. “If I don’t play that game, I’m not in this league. I want to play so I’m going to keep going there.”
That’s what Hornqvist did to score the goal Sunday. Linemate Phil Kessel also made a superb play, lifting the bouncing puck in the air over Reimer’s net. Hornqvist was in front to knock it in. He made it look simple, but it wasn’t. That goal required great timing and tremendous hand-eye coordination. Hornqvist had to wait for the puck to come down below the crossbar — the goal would have been waved off for a high stick if he hadn’t — then put enough on his swing to get it by Reimer.
“You don’t see a play like that too often,” Crosby said.
“Obviously, Sid is the best at it,” Hornqvist said. “I just got lucky.”
It was Hornqvist’s first goal since Feb. 9 when he scored two at Colorado. He went 12 games in a row without one excluding the latest five he missed because of the second concussion.
“The last few games haven’t been my best,” Hornqvist said. “Too much up and down. I need to be more consistent. Not just scoring goals, my performance. Sometimes, you can’t control scoring goals, but you can control other things.”
Playing a physical game. Hornqvist leads the Penguins with 207 hits. Chipping in on the power play. Hornqvist has nine goals and five assists as a member of the first unit. Coming up big in the biggest games. Hornqvist had nine goals in the Penguins’ run to the Stanley Cup last season. And, of course …
“He’s a guy who will continue to go to the front of the net no matter what.”
For Hornqvist, that’s where it all starts.
Ron Cook: email@example.com and Twitter @RonCookPG. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
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