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Gritty Hornqvist Gets Opportunity with Crosby

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

It looks like the last pick of the 2005 NHL Draft will start the season on a line with the first pick.

Patric Hornqvist skated on Sidney Crosby’s right wing in the captain’s first and only preseason game on Oct. 1 in Detroit, and the two have been practicing alongside each other ever since. With head coach Mike Johnston announcing Wednesday that Pascal Dupuis will be with Brandon Sutter and Evgeni Malkin to start the regular-season opener on Thursday vs. Anaheim, it’s all but guaranteed that Hornqvist will start with Crosby and Chris Kunitz.

Not a bad way for the 27-year-old Swede to start things off here in Pittsburgh.

“Obviously when ‘Sid’ gets the puck, you just have to get open,” said Hornqvist, who was acquired from Nashville with Nick Spaling for James Neal in June. “He’s a wonderful hockey player. He can make things happen from nothing and you just have to have your stick on the ice and find those open spots.”

Johnston said the original plan was to put Hornqvist with Malkin. But with Malkin sidelined for the majority of training camp – including all six preseason games – with an undisclosed injury, the coach decided to try Hornqvist with Pittsburgh’s other superstar center. And it looks like it’s a choice Johnston is sticking with, at least for the time being.

Hornqvist was certainly fine with either option.

“Can’t ask for anything better than that,” he said with a smile. “Probably the two best players in the world.”

Especially coming from a team like Nashville. The Predators have built around their star players, goalie Pekka Rinne and defenseman Shea Weber. As a result, they've become a team who's defensively strong but low scoring.

"In Nashville if you didn’t see anything, we probably dumped it in and went after it," Hornqvist said. "It was one of those teams where we were hard to play against and all that. Here you need to make a play. You’ve got great players around you and if I have 'Geno' and Crosby, they can make things happen from nothing. We didn’t have that in Nashville."

What makes Hornqvist so complementary to skilled guys like Crosby and Malkin is his completeness. While Hornqvist is a talented player who’s a four-time 20-goal scorer (and posted a career-high 30 goals in 2009-10) and has a finisher’s touch, he’s also a gritty competitor who takes pride in his willingness to get to the dirty areas. In short, he can create space for Crosby and Malkin to do their thing, but can also put the puck in the net if they feed it to him.

“I try and go hard to the net and create space for my teammates and give the team energy,” Hornqvist said. “I’m not going to change because I’m playing with Sid, but obviously you need to be aware because he can make things happen from nothing. So you need to be ready all the time to get the puck.”

Crosby has certainly noticed Hornqvist’s nose for the net.

“He goes to the net hard,” Crosby said. “He’s going to be around the net and create a lot of havoc there, so whether it means throwing pucks more often there or maybe kind of looking there first knowing he gets there pretty often, (we’ll see). But yeah, he just goes to the net a lot. I think that’s one thing that kind of stood out right away.”

Spaling knows Hornqvist better than anyone else on this team, as the two played together for seven years with Nashville and their American Hockey League affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals.

“He’s a fun guy to watch,” Spaling said. “He’s kind of a nuisance out there. He’s out there in front of the net, he’s always working and he’s got a real knack for the puck and getting his stick on pucks. There aren’t a whole lot of guys that can play like that. When he’s around the net, that’s when he is effective. He knows that. He knows how to play there and he’s played there and figured it out.”

Hornqvist wasn’t always that type of player. While playing for Djurgardens of the Swedish Elite League, he was more of a perimeter player. It wasn’t until arriving in Nashville for the 2008-09 season that he adapted his game.

“When I was playing in Europe I was more of a high-slot guy,” Hornqvist said. “When I came to Nashville I was trying to go in front of the net. They put me in front of the net on the power play. After that I got more ice time on the power play and the puck started to go in. From then on I was always trying to go hard to the net and score those greasy goals.”

It looks like Hornqvist will be seeing a lot of power-play time with the Pens as well, as he’s been a fixture on the first unit. He and Kunitz will be working down low. When the Pens get set up in the offensive zone, one of them is at the top of the crease and the other is lined up higher in the slot between the circles. From there, the two just read and react off each other.

“Whoever starts up top, he’s going to stay there and the other guy just goes to the net,” Hornqvist said. “I’m pretty sure we’re going to have at least one guy in front of the net. We will see.”

Pens fans should get ready to see a lot of Hornqvist this year. He can’t wait to play in front of them for the first time on Thursday.

“It’s a big day for me and this group,” he said. “Been waiting a long time. Lot of changes in the summer, obviously. Looks like everybody is ready and waiting for opening night here.”

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