PITTSBURGH — There's a bit of masochist in Patric Hornqvist. Has to be.
How else to explain the thrill the Pittsburgh Penguins forward gets by planting himself in front of an opposing net and daring someone — be it a goaltender or defender typically within a stick's reach of him — to move him out of the way by any means necessary?
Over the course of three periods on a given night, Hornqvist will be punched, pushed, slashed (both legally and illegally) and generally treated as a piñata on skates. And here's the thing. He likes it. A lot. The smile on his face even as he's being chopped to the ice is a dead giveaway.
"I think he finds comfort in being a pain in the neck," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.
Sure, it's not quite the career path the 31-year-old envisioned while growing up in Sweden, where the larger international ice sheets provided Hornqvist plenty of room to do as he pleased. That space has disappeared in the NHL, where the ice surface is smaller, the players bigger and faster, and the goals far harder to come by.
So Hornqvist has carved out a niche by volunteering to get to the places on the ice that aren't for the meek — a 5-foot-11, 189-pound stockpile of kinetic energy. In the process, he's become arguably the best of the net-front masters that will play a pivotal role in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Hornqvist scored 29 times this season for the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, most of them coming from in tight. Some on deflections. Others on rebounds. Others still when he managed to thrust his stick in the middle of chaos and find the order in it. Oh, and the puck, too.
They call the corners and the front of the net the "dirty area." Maybe, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Especially in the post-season.
"Usually it's not the pretty goal that wins the game," said Predators forward Scott Hartnell, no stranger to the mosh pit that doubles as the area just outside the goal crease. "It's the one-two-three-four whacks on it and it goes in."
The goal that propelled the Penguins to a second title last June came not from Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin or Kris Letang but by Hornqvist doing what he does as well as anyone in the NHL — collecting Justin Schultz's shot off the end boards then banking it off Nashville's Pekka Rinne and into the net late in Game 6 of the 2017 Stanley Cup finals.
"I love to be where it's hot, especially in those areas in front of the net," Hornqvist said. "It's probably the best place to be."
And, in a weird way, it's a pretty effective path to career longevity. Hornqvist just signed a five-year contract extension over the winter. Hartnell will turn 36 later this month. Tampa Bay's Chris Kunitz — who filled a role similar to Hornqvist's while helping the Penguins to three Cups before joining the Lightning — played in all 82 games this year for the Eastern Conference's top seed at age 38.
Pain, it turns out, has its perks. Washington's Tom Wilson, just 24, points to players like Hornqvist and Philadelphia's Wayne Simmonds as a role model of sorts.
"(Simmonds) will tip the puck, he'll turn and he'll find it," Wilson said. "He's strong enough to be able to get two or three chances. And you've got to be strong enough in order to be able to do something with it after you find it."
Hornqvist brushes off the notion that he's special, saying only "I take pride in what I do out there." He points out he scored 15 power-play goals this season — third most in the league — not so much because of any particular talent he may have but because he happens to play on the same unit as Crosby and Malkin.
Defences can become so intent on trying to keep Pittsburgh's two stars in check that Hornqvist has a knack of finding the open spot. And if the puck happens to show up there, too, even better.
Crosby isn't so sure. Asked if there's an art to Hornqvist's approach to his job, the two-time MVP nods.
"I think it's a skill," Crosby said. "It takes a lot of determination, a lot of courage but there's also some thought that goes into it, too. I think you can't have one without the other and I think he's able to find ways to create space and find pucks and battle all through that stuff in order to create goals there."
It goes beyond putting the puck in the net. Hornqvist, Hartnell and the rest can be just as effective doing things that never show up on a goal sheet, be it creating a screen or occupying a pair of defenders or simply refusing to get out of the way.
"There's obviously the guys that work well with the shooter, moving screens, on the same page," Washington goaltender Braden Holtby said. "And then there's just the guys that they just get in there and kind of frustrate you and run interference and stuff like that. It's more those tiny little jabs that throw you off balance that the ref or no one else sees."
Hornqvist does it all. Rookie forward Zach Aston-Reese marvels at Hornqvist's ability to both use his stick "like an axe" while absorbing all manner of abuse without letting his frustration get the best of him.
"We played Washington and he had three guys punching him in the head and for him to be like cool, calm and collected and not retaliate, not drop his gloves," Aston-Reese said. "There's a huge mental capacity to it."
A capacity Hornqvist and the rest of his brethren will have to rely on in the post-season, when goals of any variety are at a premium and where the traffic jams in front of the net are not for the claustrophobic. Some players will have to find a way to adapt. Not so for guys like Hornqvist.
"He plays every game like it's a playoff game," Crosby said. "What he has to deal with is exactly what you face every night in the playoffs with how hard you have to compete in front of the net to find those loose pucks, yeah I think he finds a way to elevate his game."