Dirty Work: Net-front guys play vital role in NHL playoffs

Getty Images
1 Comment

PITTSBURGH (AP) — 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 pinata 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 postseason.

”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.

Defenses 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 postseason, 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.”

AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno in Washington, D.C. and AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville contributed to this report.

More NHL hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Ovechkin, and Ovi Jr., take the ice at All-Star skills night

ovechkin all star
Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports
1 Comment

SUNRISE, Fla. — When you’ve got the second-most goals in NHL history, you’re evidently permitted to bring a guest onto the ice for the All-Star Skills competition.

That’s why there were two No. 8 Washington jerseys out there Friday night.

Capitals star Alex Ovechkin took the ice with his Metropolitan Division teammates – and his oldest child, 4-year-old Sergei.

Sergei, named for Ovechkin’s late brother, was wearing an Ovi Jr. jersey. The kid has built a bit of a following in recent weeks, after scoring a goal at a Caps practice in December and playing a role in helping the Washington crowd celebrate his dad’s 800th goal.

It was Ovi Jr.’s first chance at being part of an All-Star weekend. His father hasn’t participated at All-Star since 2018, either because of COVID-19 or injuries. The last time his dad played in an All-Star event, Sergei hadn’t been born.

Alex Ovechkin has 812 goals. He only trails Wayne Gretzky’s 894 in NHL history.

And later in the night, Ovi Jr. got to center a line alongside his dad and Pittsburgh great Sidney Crosby. They each got an assist on a goal that Sergei scored – beating Roberto Luongo, the Florida great who came out of retirement for All-Star weekend.

Said Ovechkin after his son scored: “I think he’s really enjoying it.”

WELCOME HOME, LU

Luongo got to be part of one more All-Star competition.

In a building where a banner bearing his No. 1 jersey hangs – he’s the only former Panthers player to have that distinction – Luongo was a celebrity goaltender during the Breakaway Challenge during the Skills Competition on Friday night.

He stopped his lone shot in the breakaway, off the stick of Toronto’s Mitch Marner. On one hand, Marner is the Maple Leafs’ leading scorer this season. On the other hand, he was also wearing a white suit, sunglasses and a light blue T-shirt to keep with a “Miami Vice” theme.

Luongo was up to the challenge. Marner tried to beat him to the glove side, but Luongo got enough of it to make the save – then flopped forward to cover up the rebound, the smile clearly seen through his mask.

“You got too close,” Luongo told Marner.

Later, Luongo told ESPN during the telecast of the event that “this is my house. This is my home right here. The crease is my home.”

Luongo’s pads paid tribute to his career – the design paid tribute to his time both as a member of the Panthers and the Vancouver Canucks.

He also took part, and scored a goal, in a Florida alumni game on Wednesday night.

REMEMBERING JIMMY

Sergei Ovechkin – who knocked a shot into an open net during a stoppage of the skills events – wasn’t the only child who got a great view of the night.

Philadelphia forward Kevin Hayes has his 3-year-old nephew Beau with him for All-Star weekend. Beau’s father was Jimmy Hayes, Kevin Hayes’ brother.

Jimmy Hayes was 31 when he died in 2021 with fentanyl and cocaine in his system. He played for four NHL teams, including Florida.

Kevin Hayes is part of an All-Star weekend for the first time.

ANTHEM POISE

“The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed by the South Florida Gay Men’s Chorus, and group crushed it – never minding that the crowd, representing several different fan bases, was going to shout some term specific to their team at various points in the lyrics.

Florida fans shout along with “red” and “Knight,” one a nod to one of the team’s primary colors, the other for goaltender Spencer Knight. There also were some shouts from other fan bases; some St. Louis fans, for example, could be heard singing “home of the Blues” instead of “home of the brave” to close the song.

And “O Canada” performer Hannah Walpole had some shouting as she sang as well, particularly when she reached the “true North” portion of those lyrics – something typically heard at Winnipeg games.

SLAP SHOTS

Cale Makar, the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner from the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, was the first participant in the Fastest Skater event – the opening competition of the night. He fell coming around the second turn. … Tampa Bay’s Pat Maroon, one of the broadcasters on the event, reported that he was “freezing” by working at ice level. “I’m used to the gear,” said Maroon, who was in a blazer and open shirt Friday night. … A big hit for those used to the regular colors of FLA Live Arena – and basically all other hockey arenas – was the ocean-water-shade of blue used for the blue lines and the creases. The faceoff dots at the circles on either end of the ice aren’t the standard solid red this weekend, but depict an image of the sun instead.

Capitals sign Dylan Strome to five-year, $25 million extension

Chase Agnello-Dean/Getty Images
0 Comments

FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Washington Capitals signed forward Dylan Strome to a five-year extension worth $25 million.

The team announced the contract during NHL All-Star Weekend, which is taking place in South Florida – the place Strome was drafted third in 2015.

Strome will count $5 million against the salary cap through the 2027-28 season. He was set to be a restricted free agent this summer.

“Dylan is an intelligent and skilled center and has been a great addition to our organization,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We are pleased to sign him to a long-term contract. We feel his skill set is a great fit for our team as he enters the prime years of his career at an important position.”

Strome is getting a raise from the $3.5 million deal he signed with the Capitals after the Chicago Blackhawks opted not to tender him a qualifying offer and made him a free agent. Strome has 11 goals and 25 assists in 36 games this season and ranks third on Washington’s roster with 14 power-play points.

The Mississauga, Ontario, native who played his junior hockey alongside Connor McDavid with the Erie Otters has 206 points in 325 regular-season NHL games with the Arizona Coyotes, Blackhawks and Capitals.

Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

mark stone surgery
Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports
2 Comments

LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

brunette dui
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
1 Comment

DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released on $500 bond.

The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.