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Down in Front: Patric Hornqvist fitting in just fine with Florida Panthers

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Patric Florida Hornqvist Panthers
Florida Panthers forward Patric Hornqvist works in front of goalie Philippe Desrosiers at practice on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. Hornqvist leads the Panthers with three goals in his first two games since coming over in a deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins. // @FlaPanthers

As the Florida Panthers were working on a deal to send Mike Matheson to Pittsburgh, the fate of the trade hinged on Patric Hornqvist’s desire to leave the Penguins.

He admits he was torn. For the deal to go down, Hornqvist had to waive his no-trade agreement.

“Once I found out Pittsburgh didn’t want me and Florida really wants me,” Hornqvist said the day after the trade became official, “it was an easy choice for me and my family.”

On Thursday, the veteran forward said something else was in the back of his mind.

Although considered a fan favorite in Pittsburgh and a guy GM Jim Rutherford once credited for changing the culture of the team upon arrival, there was growing concern his game was slowing.

At 33, the question was how much Hornqvist had left in the proverbial tank.

So far, it looks like he has plenty.

“I came here with fresh blood and I am going to show everyone that I can keep playing and be effective out there,” said Hornqvist, who turned 34 on New Year’s Day and leads the Panthers with three goals in their first two games of the season.

“I always want to be the best player out there, but that’s not going to happen every day.”

Leaving Pittsburgh wasn’t easy for Hornqvist as he was a big part of two Stanley Cup championship teams, his Game 6 goal in 2017 the difference in finishing off Nashville for his second championship.

Bringing in Hornqvist, and shedding the final six years of Matheson’s contract, was Bill Zito’s first on-ice move as general manager of the Panthers.

It was a big one.

Patric Florida Hornqvist Panthers

Patric Hornqvist of the Florida Panthers // Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images

There were a lot of people who didn’t think Matheson was movable after his previous two seasons with the Florida, ones that ended with coach Joel Quenneville scratching him for what would be the Panthers final two games against the Islanders in Toronto.

Bringing in Hornqvist brought its own risks due to his age and the three years and $16 million remaining on his contract.

He went from scoring 29 goals in 2017-18 to 17 last season.

But Zito was doing more than just trading contracts.

He wanted to build the Panthers in a tougher mold and Hornqvist is a tough guy to play against.

Hornqvist’s style of play is definitely something the Panthers needed — and have not had in some time.

“I grew up watching (Tomas) Holmstrom in Detroit and it was a rite of passage for a coach in Windsor to tell a junior forward to play like Holmstrom,” Aaron Ekblad said.

“Look what he does; he stands in front of the net and he scores goals. It’s the same kind of thing with Hornqvist. I think collectively as a team, especially as a D, we know when he is out there and we want to get the puck to him because he’s in front of the net and we know he can do good things with it.

“It is always great to have a guy like that. I remember Tomas Kopecky a few years ago, I loved getting the puck to him at the net. I knew he would tip it in some way or form and it was going to go in. Same aspect. It’s huge for us, no doubt about it.”

Although he missed the first few days of training camp, Hornqvist came in and quickly ingratiated himself into the lineup.

Not only did Quenneville put him on the right side of the second line, but on the top power play unit.

Hornqvist’s big frame was used to clear out space in front of the Penguins net for years.

Patric Hornqvist ‘blindsided’ by trade: Panthers wanted me, Penguins did not

The Panthers envisioned him doing the same thing in Florida.

Regardless of how old he is, Hornqvist’s style of play has not aged.

“He takes pride in things like getting in front of the net, continuing the battle, and getting his stick free in tight areas,” Quenneville said.

“He has been a very effective player for our team in a short amount of time. It has been very noticeable what his addition has meant you our team. …

“He has brought really good experience to our team and the intangibles he brings are something that has really helped our team. When you look back, that’s probably the biggest thing he has brought to our group.”

In Sunday’s season opener, Hornqvist threw up a shot from the short wall that appeared to deflect off a Chicago defender for his first goal with the Panthers.

Tuesday, Hornqvist got a goal the Panthers and Zito envisioned when they made the deal as he positioned himself in front of rookie goalie Kevin Lankinen, put a body on him a bit and knocked the puck through from the mouth of the goal.

His third goal came in a different fashion but was built off him getting down low.

Positioned in front of the goalie, Keith Yandle’s long shot off the power play chance clipped Hornqvist on its way through.

Not the way one would draw it up, but hey, it counts.

“It feels good but obviously the big thing for us was getting the two points (each) night,” Hornqvist said.

“It hasn’t been super pretty, but we got away with it, got four points in finding a way to win. That’s what good teams do.”

The Panthers are hoping a change in scenery and new blood around him have rejuvinated Hornqvist.

His teammates have yet to stop raving about him.

“I have never seen a guy with that much energy,” Ekblad said.

“It is inspiring, it is motivational to have a guy in the room who comes into the room every day with that kind of vim and vigor. He’s always happy, always excited, and isn’t afraid to push the other guys.

“It’s a great learning experience in leadership for me, for Barkov, for Huberdeau. I don’t think we have ever had a guy that vocal on our team. You can see what it does to get guys going.”

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