PITTSBURGH -- Four years ago the Pittsburgh Penguins traded for a forward with unproven potential and put him in position to become one of the NHL's more dangerous scorers.
Pittsburgh might have done it again.
The Penguins acquired forward Patric Hornqvist, along with forward Nick Spaling, from the Nashville Predators for forward James Neal during the first day of the 2014 NHL Draft. In much the same way Neal was brought in from the Dallas Stars during the 2010-11 season, Pittsburgh banked on its ability to put Hornqvist in the right position to improve his career-high 53 points from last season.
Through four games entering Tuesday, Hornqvist was tied for third in League scoring with eight points, one point behind linemate Sidney Crosby and New York Islanders forward John Tavares, and is tied with Crosby for the team lead in goals with four.
Pittsburgh Penguins forward Patric Hornqivst has found instant chemistry with Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. (Photo: Gregory Shamus/NHLI)
Hornqvist said he has enjoyed the atmosphere surrounding the Penguins through the early portion of his time in Pittsburgh. He will look to continue that feeling when the Penguins face the Philadelphia Flyers at Consol Energy Center on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA SPORTS2).
"It's fun to win and put up points," Hornqvist said. "I think the group has really gotten together. We have a lot of fun off and on the ice and we need to keep it going."
In 2011-12, Neal's first full season with the Penguins, he scored 81 points, 26 more than his previous best. Hornqvist seems to be on his way to a similarly successful season with the Penguins.
That is where the comparisons between Hornqvist and the player he was brought in to replace end. Hornqvist is known as a hard-nosed forward who constantly turns toward the net and battles in the crease; Neal has one of the more lethal shots in the League that he uses to routinely score goals from at or beyond the faceoff circles.
This difference has led to Hornqvist possibly playing on Pittsburgh's top line long-term, alongside Crosby and left wing Chris Kunitz, after he was expected to replace Neal next to Evgeni Malkin on the second line.
An undisclosed injury to Malkin has seen him moved to wing on the Penguins second line to start the season; he began the season at right wing with Brandon Sutter at center and Pascal Dupuis at left wing. Hornqvist is a natural right wing, so with Malkin playing there, he was elevated to the first line.
That apparently was not the initial plan of Pittsburgh's coaching staff, but having Crosby surrounded by two gritty forwards who attack the net has formed a chemistry Penguins coach Mike Johnston thinks is undeniable.
"[Hornqvist] plays a direct game," Johnston said. "He plays a hard, direct game where he's in on the forecheck, he drives the net, he gets a volume of shots and looks like now he has some chemistry with Sid and Kunitz. The whole line there seems to be able to read off each other, find each other."
Hornqvist has scored at least one point in each of his first four games with the Penguins, including a two-goal, three-point game against the New York Islanders at Consol Energy Center Saturday. After the Penguins trailed 1-0 through most of the game’s first half, Hornqvist's power-play goal at 14:44 of the second period held up as the game-winner. He added an empty-net goal with 1:20 remaining.
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Hornqvist has become a pivotal piece in Pittsburgh's top-ranked power play, much like Neal once was. Johnston has said he enjoys the balance the top power-play unit has demonstrated, with Crosby and Malkin to the outside, defenseman Kris Letang at the point and Kunitz and Hornqvist down low.
"The thing I like about the power play is we have two great net guys," Johnston said. "Guys who can play in front of the net, they have a really good stick down low and those types of players are hard to find. Usually on a team you have one guy who's very good around the crease on the power play."
Pittsburgh has scored on 47.1 percent of its man-advantage opportunities, which is more than 15 percentage points clear of the Flyers, who rank second.
"[Hornqvist is] a guy throughout his career who has been in and around the net scoring goals," Kunitz said. "He's got a good hand-eye coordination, really strong on his stick. Us having a right-handed shot out there kind of gives us another dimension and look for the one-timer on things that we haven't had in the past. But as you see, he can be in front of the net, he can be shooting the pucks."
Hornqvist thinks he has been put in position to succeed.
"They're four great players there," Hornqvist said. "They're unbelievable. Obviously, Sid and Geno [Malkin] are probably the best pair in the world and Letang is great at the point and [Kunitz] is awesome in front. So we have it going right now, but we have to keep working and don't sit back here. Let's keep it going."
Hornqvist, Crosby and Kunitz have scored 10 of Pittsburgh's 16 goals. That's been necessary thus far since the lack of secondary scoring that plagued the team last season has carried over into this season.
Despite little production from the bottom-six, Pittsburgh has won three of its first four games while leading the NHL by averaging 4.0 goals per game. The top line has been able to carry the load early and Hornqvist, who recorded 12 shots against New York on Saturday, partially is responsible.
"[Hornqvist] does it all," Crosby said. "He goes to the net hard. He's got a great shot. He plays with a lot of energy, creates a lot of turnovers. Defensively I think's he pretty responsible. So I think everything on the ice he does well. And I think he's been a great guy in the room too.
"All the way around we're happy to have him."