PITTSBURGH - Much has changed for Pittsburgh Penguins forward Carl Hagelin in four months.
In mid-January, Hagelin was stuck in one of the least productive stretches of his NHL career. He had four goals and eight assists in 43 games with the Anaheim Ducks before being traded to the Penguins on Jan. 16.
Entering the Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Hagelin is one of Pittsburgh's more lethal assets because of his defining characteristic: speed.
"That's probably one of the reasons they wanted to trade for me," Hagelin said before his first game with the Penguins, against the Carolina Hurricanes on Jan. 17, "for me to bring my speed and play the way I can."
That speed has added an element that was missing from the Penguins attack in the first half of the season, and one the Lightning will have to deal with starting in Game 1 Friday at Consol Energy Center (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).
Video: WSH@PIT, Gm6: Hagelin deflects PPG past Holtby
Hagelin immediately clicked with his new team, with the Penguins fully utilizing his straight-ahead speed. After having initial success playing left wing next to center Evgeni Malkin, Hagelin and right wing Phil Kessel joined center Nick Bonino in mid-March, when Malkin sustained an upper-body injury.
Malkin missed the final 15 regular-season games, but with Hagelin, Kessel and Bonino the Penguins thrived. Hagelin had six goals and seven assists, helping the Penguins win 13 of those 15 games.
Hagelin and Kessel improved with Bonino, who adapted to their north-south style. Pittsburgh seemed to embrace the speed generated from its new second line, which led Penguins coach Mike Sullivan to slot rookie left wing Conor Sheary into the top line alongside Sidney Crosby, in place of veteran forward Chris Kunitz.
When Malkin returned in Game 2 of Pittsburgh's Eastern Conference First Round series against the New York Rangers, Sullivan decided to keep his former linemates with Bonino. That proved to be the right call.
Hagelin scored once in five games against New York, but surged early against the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference Second Round. He scored one goal in each of the series' first two games before having his most impressive playoff performance in Pittsburgh's series-deciding 4-3 overtime win in Game 6, when he had a goal and two assists.
The speed of Hagelin's line has proven difficult for larger teams to defend and could be a key factor again against the Lightning; Tampa Bay defensemen Brayden Coburn, Victor Hedman and Andrej Sustr range from 6-foot-5 to 6-foot-7 and each weight at least 220 pounds. Coburn, Hedman and Sustr are split across Tampa Bay's three defense pairings, meaning Hagelin will always be out against one of them.
After the Rangers surrendered five goals in three of five games against the Penguins, New York defenseman Marc Staal marveled at Pittsburgh's tempo.
Video: WSH@PIT, Gm3: Hagelin chips in Bonino's pretty feed
"They have some guys that can fly," Staal said. "When we turned it over or made a bad read or tried to get some offense, they'd come back and hurt you. They'd score."
Capitals coach Barry Trotz complimented Hagelin's speed, and his line, after Washington was eliminated in the second round.
"The Hagelin line … they seemed to be the group that scored all the time," Trotz said. "They end up being, really, the difference … I think the speed of their team creates a lot of matchup problems right through the lineup. They have real good team speed.
"Hagelin has exceptional speed. They throw a lot of pucks to let him go 100 feet down the ice and let him track them down. He's a difficult matchup because of his speed."
When the Ducks traded Hagelin four months ago, Sullivan, who was an assistant coach with Rangers when Hagelin played in New York, knew what kind of player he was getting. Hagelin has since played an integral part in shaping Pittsburgh's new identity.
"I think it starts with our team speed," Sullivan said. "I think we really push the pace. We try to play fast through the neutral zone. We can put pressure on teams. For me, that's when our team is at its best."