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‘Post-Christmas Hagelin’ has emerged, and it couldn’t be at a better time

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Carl Hagelin has had a lackluster start to his 2017-18 campaign, but according to him, he plays his best hockey after Christmas. He isn’t lying.

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Before the Penguins bye week, Carl Hagelin only produced six points in the first 43 games of the season, which included a measly two goals. This wouldn’t be that big of a deal if he wasn’t listed as a top-six forward just about every night. Something obviously had to be done.

Hagelin has taken a ton flack and has basically been under constant fire up until the midway point of the regular season — and rightfully so. The good news is, he’s aware of it and has repeatedly stated that he understands this sort of play is unacceptable. To boot, just a few days ago, before the tilt against the Red Wings, he mentioned something else very interesting.

“I know what type of player I turn into after Christmas,” he told The Athletic.

Carl Hagelin plays a hell of a lot better after the holidays, and he seriously couldn’t have picked a better time to start racking up points. In fact, he wasted no time at all. Before the bye week, he had an assist in the Bruins game, and didn’t skip a beat when Pittsburgh faced Detroit in its first game back. And arguably the best performance of the bunch came against his former team, the New York Rangers, where the left-winger tallied both a goal and an assist. Hagelin has now extended his points streak to three consecutive games, earning four (one goal, three assists) in that time frame.

To put that into perspective, Hagelin has produced 67% of the points he tallied all season in just the past three games. That’s wild.

He’s noticeably becoming more involved in the offense, using his speed to a more effective advantage. Granted, he never lost that speed, but finally, Hagelin’s actually capitalizing on the opportunities given to him rather than falling flat. His natural ability to chase down pucks, fill open lanes down ice, force turnovers, and corral all of those traits and use them in the creation of scoring chances is why he was so successful in his arrival to Pittsburgh.

This was very evident in the Detroit game. In the first period, he chased a puck into the boards behind the Red Wings cage and zipped a centering pass to the Evgeni Malkin streaking down into the slot.

The best part? It was only the beginning.

It’s helped that he’s been paired with Malkin and Patric Hornqvist, two lofty point producers, on the second line. This was sort of a gutsy move by Mike Sullivan — separating Malkin and Phil Kessel — who’ve complemented each other wonderfully all year. Kessel’s shown no signs of slowing down, no matter where he’s been put, so Sullivan may have struck gold combining those three together.

You can fall down the previous season stat line rabbit hole and find that in the latter half of all of them, Hagelin’s play is pretty dominant, especially in the playoffs. It helps when you’re the top guy in the league that’s been in the most postseason games, but the numbers don’t lie. In just about every stat category, Hagelin improves whenever the calendar year turns over.

Hopefully he continues trending upwards and following in the footsteps of his past performances. We could use a breakaway or two where he doesn’t hit the opposing net-minder directly in the chest.

With the Penguins now fourth in the Metro, and their next five games, apart from a matchup with the Hurricanes, taking place with west coast teams, it’s a perfect time to continue racking up points to stay in the division’s tight race. Every game matters now; an important clash with the Washington Capitals awaits them at the beginning of next month.

This team is leagues better when Hags is producing at a constant pace and making a difference on the ice. I expect he’ll continue to do so with his re-gained certainty and self-assurance.