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The Penguins’ power play must shine without Hornqvist

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Special teams takes a huge hit for the Penguins in Game 4, as Patric Hornqvist will not play due to injury. Here’s a look at how the Penguins can counter his absence.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Pittsburgh Penguins at Philadelphia Flyers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

So far in this round one series with the Flyers, the Penguins have lived and died by their top-ranked power play’s successes and failures. The nights in which the unit was clicking on all cylinders (i.e., Games 1 and 3), two very dominant victory efforts were the result. In Game 2, when Pittsburgh’s power play unit put up a big ol’ goose egg and went 0-for-4, Philadelphia stole a win of its own. Simple math concludes that special teams has been the theme so far.

Now, in Game 4, the Penguins will have to continue scoring mightily on the man-advantage without their best power play connoisseur Patric Hornqvist, who was officially ruled out Tuesday afternoon with an “upper-body injury” by head coach Mike Sullivan. This is a big hit to the unit, as pretty stark differences plagues Pittsburgh whenever Hornqvist is up in the press box in a suit rather than down with his teammates on the bench.

In the 2017-18 regular season and playoffs, the power play unit has been successful at a stellar 26.2 percent conversion rate (72 for 275 opportunities) with Hornqvist filling his usual role on the PP1. That’s heralded as the best rate in the NHL — as I’m sure you all know by now. Without him? That’s where things get worrisome.

In the 31 chances the Penguins had on the man-advantage without Hornqvist in the lineup, they’ve only scored in four of them, dropping all the way down to a measly 12.9 percent. That’s a catastrophic contrast.

But what may be an even bigger blow to this Pittsburgh squad is the tenacity, emotion, and ability to change the course of the game they’ll miss from Hornqvist’s on-ice play. Not only that, but he’s also been one of the Penguins best players so far this postseason. Luckily, depth will shrug away any concerns about who’ll step up in Hornqvist’s absence.

“Horny’s not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “He’s a unique player for us, and he brings a lot. I think we’re just going to have to, by committee, pick up the pieces and make sure that the opportunities that are given to others that Horny normally fills, they’re going to get a great opportunity to help this team win a game.”

But replace him, they must. Tuesday’s lines at practice suggest Dominik Simon will be the guy who’ll receive a lineup spot for the first time these playoffs, rounding off the top line with Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel. Guentzel will most likely slot into Hornqvist’s spot on the top power play unit, but look for Zach Aston-Reese, Hornqvist’s “twin,” to fill in for some of those net-front duties on both the man-advantage and even-strength as well.