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Dazzling Hornqvist helps Preds turn tables

by John Manasso
NASHVILLE -- One would almost have to forgive the Nashville Predators if they happened to be disoriented by the juxtaposition.

For the first time in franchise history at a late-season juncture, the Predators find themselves ahead of Central Division nemesis Detroit in the standings heading into Saturday's game at Bridgestone Arena between the two rivals that is fraught with playoff implications.

And if that weren't enough, Nashville also possesses the Swedish forward with the most goals this season: right wing Patric Hornqvist.

Hornqvist's 29 goals, tops on his team, exceed the 23 of the Red Wings' Henrik Zetterberg -- Hornqvist's linemate at last month's Olympics and the 2008 Conn Smythe Trophy winner -- and the 20 of Tomas Holmstrom, the player to whom Hornqvist is most often compared.

It's quite a turnabout of affairs for the 23-year-old Hornqvist, who scored just two goals in 28 games last season as a rookie and who was the 230th and final player selected in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.

Predators general manager David Poile can hardly contain himself with the idea that his team has a player who can prove as nettlesome in front of the net and creates as much havoc for the opposition as Holmstrom.

"With respect to Holmstrom, Holmstrom has a little bit of a longer track record," Poile said. "But the comparison is truly there. It's nice especially since we're playing in their division to have somebody to come back against them" -- he starts chuckling -- "having Holmstrom in the face of our goalies for years and years to have somebody in the face of their goalies."

While Holmstrom is 14 years older, Hornqvist said that he did not pattern his style after his countryman. But like Holmstrom, Hornqvist is not blessed with extraordinary size. He goes to the high-traffic areas in front of the net and with his 5-foot-11, 188-pound frame takes the punishment required to be successful.

"Well he's been a surprise this year in being able to put up the numbers he has," Predators coach Barry Trotz said. "It's no surprise that he gets all his goals from the six inches in front of the crease. … To me, the game just slowed down for him. Last year the game was happening too quick. And that's just the threshold he had to get through as a young player.

"His courage to do what he does on a nightly basis is tremendous. It's the kind of admiration you would have for a Holmstrom and he's done it for a long time, so probably not that level yet but in that direction. He's scoring goals where you need to score goals now in the National Hockey League, and you see the production he's getting and I think other players could take note of that."

Those around the Predators describe Hornqvist's greatest attribute as his determination -- seemingly a necessity for the last player taken in the draft not only to make the NHL but to excel in it.

Poile described how after Hornqvist's humbling rookie campaign, he returned to Sweden and worked on his skating because he was having trouble getting to the areas he needed to in order to score. In addition to getting faster, Hornqvist also got stronger.

"It's an understatement to say that everything fell into place for him," Poile said.

And with characteristic modesty for a man who has drafted so well during a distinguished career, Poile said of picking Hornqvist last in 2005, "It's good to be good. It's better to be lucky."

Nashville rookie center Cal O'Reilly, who played with Hornqvist during his successful 49-game stint with Milwaukee in the American Hockey League last season, said Hornqvist is "a really competitive guy, really intense."

While some coaches can lose patience with unproductive young players, Trotz deserves credit for staying with Hornqvist. The coach rejects the notion that coaches can give players confidence -- certainly examples exist of coaches' having destroyed a player's confidence -- and says that players earn confidence and a coach's trust, not the other way around.

"There's a lot of players that I know have the ability to play in this league, but they probably just from a -- I don't know if it's maturity or mentality standpoint -- they don't have the mentality that they can be successful at the next level and make it translate," Trotz said.

Obviously, Hornqvist does. He said he learned a lot at the Olympics and that it give him a lot of -- there's that word again -- confidence. His other linemate was Peter Forsberg.

"Two great players," Hornqvist says, "Too bad we didn't make it longer."

While Detroit might not match lines to play Zetterberg, a Selke finalist in 2008, against Hornqvist's line with Steve Sullivan and Marcel Goc, Hornqvist's competitiveness shows when he says, "Still you want to be the best Swede out there when you play against all the other Swedes. [Zetterberg]'s just a good teammate, good player. … You always want to play against him and it's fun to play against good players."

Then he adds, "We were linemates for almost two weeks, so, for sure, if there's a battle with him, maybe you go a little bit harder."

That's not disorienting at all.

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