Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Patric Hornqvist's injury will be hard to surmount

By Mark Madden
April 17, 2018
Patric Hornqvist #72 of the Pittsburgh Penguins prepares to deflect the airborn puck against Brian Elliott #37 of the Philadelphia Flyers in Game Three of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Wells Fargo Center on April 15, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

There are a few players the Penguins could do without less easily than Patric Hornqvist in Game 4 of their first-round playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers.
But not many.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are at the top of that list, with Kris Letang and Matt Murray a bit lower.
But Hornqvist provides so much that his teammates don't: He's got a level of physicality that combines with intensity, determination and a dash of criminality to make Hornqvist an almost-constant source of frustration to foes.
That's especially useful against Philadelphia, as it distracts the Flyers from promulgating their usual shenanigans.
More tangibly, Hornqvist scored 29 goals this campaign, just one shy of his career high. Including the playoffs, the power play this season has converted a torrid 26.2 percent of the time (72 for 275) with Hornqvist in the lineup. Without Hornqvist, it's at 12.9 percent (4 for 31). Not good.
No one jumps to mind as an easy replacement on Crosby's right wing, the spot Hornqvist occupied in the Penguins' 5-1 Game 3 victory.
Dominik Simon practiced there Tuesday. He looks like the next man up and performed reasonably well when skating with Crosby previously.
But Simon's level of physicality is negligible. Hornqvist's presence induces Crosby to play down low more, which is the captain's biggest strength. Now Jake Guentzel is second fiddle on that line. Guentzel is better in a tertiary role. Crosby, Guentzel and Simon will attack off the rush and not much else.
The top power play is even more hampered.
Guentzel will replace Hornqvist on that unit, which means it won't be anywhere near the same. Hornqvist is a bruiser. Guentzel is a finesse player. Hornqvist is a net-front presence. All Guentzel does is stand in front of the net, and the Flyers will make sure that won't last long.
Hornqvist's absence absolutely cripples the first power play. It can't remotely be the same. It is likely to languish on the perimeter.
Coach Mike Sullivan doesn't have options. He only has one Hornqvist. There aren't many players like Hornqvist in the entire NHL.
It's worth trying Simon on Crosby's wing. Bryan Rust occupied that spot earlier in the series and has often skated with Crosby.
But Game 3 saw Rust be part of a solid third-line effort with Derick Brassard and Conor Sheary. Moving Rust to Crosby's trio might put Simon with Brassard and Sheary. The wings on Brassard's line would be defensively deficient, too small and, frankly, too soft.
Perhaps that's where Zach Aston-Reese comes in.
Aston-Reese might be used to solve a few problems while Hornqvist is out.
Aston-Reese is a definite option for the top power play. He's no classic blue-paint battler like Hornqvist. But Aston-Reese is cagey. He's willing to take a pounding, drift around a bit in the house, and when the moment of truth comes, Aston-Reese is adept at making plays in tight quarters.
The 5-on-5 configurations offer several decent options. Sullivan can't make a gratuitously bad decision but should take into account that Aston-Reese is superior to Sheary or Simon right now and a better fit in certain situations.
On the power play, Aston-Reese is by far the best choice to replace Hornqvist.
Sullivan won't see it that way, at least not at the start of Game 4. But Sullivan is better than most coaches at adjusting on the fly and knowing just when to pull the trigger on mid-game switches. What Sullivan uses when the puck drops Wednesday might well change because of circumstance.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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