Penguins' trio of Carl Hagelin, Patric Hornqvist and Evgeni Malkin fueling recent surge
The combination of two high-energy Swedes and a dynamic Russian superstar has the Penguins poised to take a run at a three-peat when the Stanley Cup playoffs start in a month.
Olli Maatta has a theory about why Carl Hagelin, Patric Hornqvist and Evgeni Malkin have meshed so well.
It's because of Finland.
Russians and Swedes fought on the opposite sides in nearly a dozen wars throughout history, but these days, relations between the countries is far less hostile. That's because, Maatta figures, both nations have focused on his native Finland as a common rival and have therefore become friendly.
Maatta was joking, of course. He wasn't seriously comparing centuries of life-or-death geopolitical struggle to a hockey game. What isn't a joke, though, is the impact Hagelin, Malkin and Hornqvist have had on the Penguins season.
The trio has fueled a second-half surge that has carried the team from the fringes of the Eastern Conference playoff picture to the thick of race for a Metropolitan Division title.
“I think it's been good chemistry the last two or three months we've played together,” Hagelin said. “It's been fun. I think we're pretty good at reading off each other.”
On paper, it's not hard to see why the combination works.
Hagelin is the speed, forcing loose pucks with an aggravating forecheck and backing off defenders with his skating ability. Hornqvist is the grit, relentlessly winning battles at the front of the net and in the corners. Malkin is the skill, creating and finishing scoring chances with equal aplomb.
The combination of the three skill sets provides the blueprint for why the line works. There are some other subtleties involved too, however.
Coach Mike Sullivan, for instance, likes the influence Hagelin and Hornqvist have on Malkin's style of play. He doesn't get too fancy when they're on his wings.
“Geno tends to play more of a north-south game, a straight-ahead game when he plays with those guys,” Sullivan said, “and he shoots the puck.”
That last part is perfectly fine with Hornqvist.
“He shoots better than me, so I'd rather see him shoot it than me,” Hornqvist said with a laugh. “The way he's playing right now, I just try to get him the puck and I try to get open.”
Hagelin noted, though, the roles the linemates fill aren't rigidly defined. It's not like he and Hornqvist do all the dirty work while Malkin plays prima donna. Malkin does his share of puck retrieval, too.
“He's definitely a guy who likes to get involved,” Hagelin said. “I think he's playing his best hockey when he's physical and he's taking hits and giving out hits.”
A look inside the numbers shows just how effective the combination has been.
Individually, the success is evident. Malkin leads the league in scoring since Jan. 1 with 53 points in 32 games. After posting just six points in his first 38 games of the season, Hagelin has 21 in his last 32 games. Hornqvist, meanwhile, has topped the 20-goal mark for the fifth straight season.
Together, the stats show they make each other better.
Hagelin, Hornqvist and Malkin have played together for about 226 five-on-five minutes this season. When they're on the ice together, the Penguins are outscoring their opponents, 15-9. When Malkin is on the ice without either, the Penguins are getting outscored, 17-13.
“Geno's feeling it right now,” Hagelin said. “He's getting pucks. If it's a one-on-one battle, you know he's going to win it, most likely. If he's one step behind a guy, he's probably going to somehow find a way to get that puck. We just try to read off of that.”