Patric Hornqvist, the Penguins' happy playoff warrior

Patric Hornqvist puts in much of his time in the dirty real estate right in front of opposing goaltenders. And loves every minute of it. Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- To see Patric Hornqvist in the Stanley Cup playoffs is to see a blissful warrior. He has the embodiment of that moment in a superhero film when our champion gets walloped in the face, contemplates the impact, and then smiles as he or she re-engages in the fight with that "this is gonna be fun" smirk.

"This is what you train for the whole summer. The whole year. For this kind of emotion," he said. "We've been through it before, but we have to enjoy it, too."

He enjoys it. Greatly and obviously. When he comes off the ice from practice, he returns to his stall in the Pittsburgh Penguins' dressing room, rips off his shoulder pads and, in typical fashion, declares, "OK, let's make it quick" to assembled media. But it never really is that quick. Give Hornqvist an opportunity to wax enthusiastic about this team and the postseason, and he holds court.

"This is the best time of year to be out there, and you just enjoy every second of it," he said.

When Hornqvist scored the Penguins' first goal in their comeback win over the Washington Capitals in Game 1 of their conference semifinal series -- a perfectly timed deflection of a Justin Schultz point shot -- it looked like he might never stop bellowing to his teammates. He yelled on the ice. He yelled at the bench.

"One more," he said as the Penguins cut the Capitals' lead in half.

His passion was matched by that of his linemates, Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel, who pried open the crack in Capitals goalie Braden Holtby that Hornqvist had exposed, and poured in two more goals on the line's next two shifts. The 2-0 deficit became a 3-2 lead, and a game that seemed in hand for Washington was turned into a Game 1 defeat.

This is what Hornqvist does. He sets the tempo.

"He plays a hard game," Crosby said. "He plays a playoff-style game all year long regardless of when it is. His biggest strength is the fact that he can contribute in so many different ways."

He makes the play that others shy away from making, in the trenches of the offensive zone.

"He pays the price," said defenseman Olli Maatta, a teammate for the Penguins' two most recent Stanley Cup championships in 2016 and 2017. "He's ready to do that. How much heart he plays with, we feed off of that. The shots he's taken. The things he's been through. How can you not feed off of it?"

The Penguins' newbies see it, too.

"He's unbelievable," said center Riley Sheahan, acquired from the Detroit Red Wings earlier this season. "His attitude, his positivity, his intensity. It carries through our whole team. He plays a hard, tough game. Definitely one of the most important pieces of our lineup. He's a leader for us. And it's cool seeing him battling in front of the net."

In the eyes of the man who acquired him four years ago, these battles are essential victories in the Penguins' championship campaigns.

Hornqvist was born in Sollentuna, Sweden, on New Year's Day in 1987. It's a town located north of Stockholm that's perhaps most notable for its ice skating tours on its two large lakes, Edsviken and Norrviken, during the winter. Rickard Rakell of the Anaheim Ducks is a native. So are Rednex, the house band you might remember from their mind-numbing cover of "Cotton Eye Joe," an arena rock favorite.

The Nashville Predators drafted Hornqvist in 2005 under rather remarkable circumstances. Please recall that the 2005 NHL draft was the one right after the lockout that killed a season. It was reduced from nine rounds to seven rounds. It featured a controversial lottery to see which team would have the opportunity to draft one of the most highly coveted prospects in NHL history: Hornqvist's future linemate, Sidney Crosby.

Crosby went No. 1 overall. Hornqvist? He was all the way at the other end of that spectrum, selected at No. 230 by Nashville -- the final selection in the draft and a pick that the Predators received as compensation for losing journeyman goalie Wade Flaherty to free agency. Hornqvist had fallen off the prospect radar, if he was ever on it: He didn't have elite stats and wasn't the fastest skater, and then dealt with injuries that slowed him.

But when the Predators had the final pick and he was still on the board, their Swedish scout Lucas Bergman called assistant general manager Paul Fenton and declared they had to take him.

"I remember being at a game and telling somebody during the warm-up, 'Just look at him. You see other guys skating in on one leg and twirling around and all this stuff? This guy tries to put the puck through the net on every shot,'" Bergman told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Hornqvist would play six seasons in Nashville, establishing himself as a physical presence with some offensive pop, averaging 0.60 points per game. "When I first came in, we had a really good leadership group," said Predators center Filip Forsberg, referencing Hornqvist. "Those guys that I just looked up to."

Hornqvist also established himself as "fearless," in the words of former coach Barry Trotz, now with the Capitals.

"He would line up in front of Pekka [Rinne], and we would do one-timers with Shea Weber," Trotz recalled. Weber's shot is legendary for its injurious velocity. Hornqvist happily acted as target practice. "That's what he practiced every day. He would be standing there."

In 2014, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford noticed that net-front presence -- and that the team he was hired to fix didn't exactly have one. The Penguins didn't have their Tomas Holmstrom or Johan Franzen, to use two recent examples of tenacious Swedes who braved the front of the crease on championship teams.

"When I first came here, the Penguins had plenty of skill players but needed to change the mix of players," Rutherford told ESPN." He's the type of guy that was needed. As time has shown, that's exactly what was needed."

Rutherford traded James Neal, who was two seasons removed from a 40-goal campaign, to Nashville for Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. Part of the move was financial, as the Penguins earned some salary-cap savings. But it was also a move that Rutherford felt was necessary to "change the mix" of the team, on the ice and in the dressing room.

"We gave up a good player. A good scorer. One who scores more than [Hornqvist] does. But we had enough guys that can score," Rutherford said.

"He's just one of those types of guys that you need on that team. He plays in all situations, and he brings that energy to the team. Goes to the net. Does all the hard things that lots of players either don't know how to do or they don't want to do."

It's said that the playoffs require equal parts of joy and pain, and Hornqvist provides both. He cracks bones. He cracks jokes. With equal passion.

"He's hilarious. But he's also really intense. He gets the guys going. He keeps it fun. But when someone needs to say something, he's one of the guys that [other] guys will listen to," Sheahan said. "I think when we're down, he's one of those guys that'll be there to bring the guys up and get the momentum for us. Plays with a chip on his shoulder."

There are plenty of chips that could rest on his shoulders. Such as the scouts who said his skills weren't good enough to be drafted, so he ended up as Mr. Irrelevant. Such as the critics who question how many miles he has left on his frame, considering the punishment he takes. Such as those who called the Neal trade "downright destructive" for the Penguins because Hornqvist wasn't as good as the player they were trading away.

But in the end, because of his contributions, the Penguins have two silver bowls, sitting atop championship chalices, into which he can toss those chips. Because Hornqvist remains an essential ingredient to their dynastic success. In what he does. In what he says. In his unwavering optimism and enthusiasm.

"If you stay positive, I think it helps some guys, and it helps myself be in the right mood," he said. "We've been through so much in the last three or four years. Training. Coaches changing. Two or three really long playoff runs.

"I always try to have fun, stay on the positive side of things. Things aren't always going to go our way. But we're here for a reason."