PITTSBURGH – Pop quiz to start the big series: When was the last time the leading goal scorer in the playoffs was a healthy scratch for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final?
With Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan declaring that right winger Patric Hornqvist will play Monday night after Hornqvist missed the past six games with an upper body injury, a really good player will have to come out of the lineup to make room for him. There is no getting around that fact. The most likely candidate for that is Carl Hagelin by virtue of the fact he was out on the ice for the Penguins’ optional morning skate after most of the players had already headed for the dressing room, which is standard operating practice in the NHL.
But there’s a chance it could be Jake Guentzel, who leads the Penguins with nine playoff goals, but hasn’t scored in the past eight games. It appears Carter Rowney, a 28-year-old who didn’t play an NHL game until this season, is safe because of his value on the penalty kill. One thing is certain, though. A player who would be in the starting lineup for Game 1 of the final for most teams won’t be on Pittsburgh’s, which is an indication of the forward depth this team has.
Should it be Hagelin, it will be a player who was such an enormous part of the Penguins’ success last spring as part of the HBK line with Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel. If it’s Guentzel, it will be a player who brings the kind of speed and skill to the lineup that the Penguins might need against the Nashville Predators and a player that would be suited far better to this series than to the Eastern Conference final against the grinding Ottawa Senators.
In Hornqvist, the Penguins get a big body back that can create room and contribute offense. He also gives the Penguins a player with a good defensive conscience and one who can take seemingly unlimited punishment in front of the opponent’s net in order to set screens and enhance scoring chances. And even though Hornqvist has not played since Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final, Sullivan anticipates that Hornqvist will not miss a beat
“I don’t think we ease anybody into the lineup,” Sullivan said. “When our guys go into the lineup, they’re ready to play, period.”
That’s a luxury the Penguins have because of their embarrassment of riches at forward. Even when Hornqvist was hurt against the Senators, Conor Sheary was the odd man out and sat out two games as a healthy scratch. And just because it’s likely Hagelin in Game 1 doesn’t mean that will be the case throughout the series. There may be a time when Guentzel has to take his place in the press box for a game or two.
“It was definitely tough not being in the lineup,” said Sheary, who missed Games 5 and 6 against Ottawa. “If you can take anything from it, you can get a rest and you can watch the game and you can learn a lot from watching. Whoever it is who sits out for ‘Hornie’ understands that ‘Hornie’ is a good player and big part of this team. And whoever it is also needs to know that he’s going to help us moving forward.”
FAST TIMES IN THE STANLEY CUP: One of the underlying themes of this series has been speed, specifically the fact that the Penguins won the Cup last year based on a speed game. But the Predators are certainly no slouches themselves when it comes to revving the engines and their coach Peter Laviolette said his team is confident it can match Pittsburgh’s pace.
“They’re a fast team (but) I feel like we’ve gone through some fast teams,” Laviolette said. “Chicago makes a living on playing the game fast with skill. Even Anaheim presents a whole bunch of challenges. A lot of their forwards have speed, but their defensemen had incredible speed. I think the further you go in the playoffs, the more speed becomes one of those things that each team is trying to seek. It’s something we talked about. I know that’s how they play the game. That’s what they talk about, as well.”
THE LATEST HOCKEY NEWS PODCAST: