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Is Hornqvist the Preds’ first 35 goal scorer?

After his miserable start last season, nobody would’ve predicted that 2nd year man Patric Hornqvist would score 20 goals this season. Let alone 20 by January 20.

Nashville Predators captain Jason Arnott not only tied his career-high in goals last season with 33, but set the franchise record in the process. Can Hornqvist eclipse that mark just a year later?

“Horn Dog,” as he’s affectionately known by the Predator fan base, already has 21 tallies in just 51 games, not to mention 15 of those coming in his last 21 contests. The guy is on fire and, if he can sustain his recent scoring clip, he’ll be looking at 42 goals come seasons end.

The Sollentuna, Sweden native started off slow last season. Right out the gate he was slotted as a top line winger, skating along side Arnott and JP Dumont. After registering just two goals in the teams’ opening 15 games, Hornqvist was sent back to the Milwaukee Admirals on what was basically a “confidence assignment.” He was then recalled twice after that but only had a plus/minus rating of minus-1 to show for the remainder of his NHL season.

Needless to say, most thought he’d start the 2009-10 season with the farm club after drastically failing to live up to expectations the season before. The organization knew the talent was still there (he had posted very successful numbers in both the Swedish Elite League and during his time in Milwaukee) but they started to wonder if his game would translate to the NHL level.

Then the 09-10 season began. Steve Sullivan was back in the lineup on opening night for the first time in three years and Hornqvist wasn’t able to just “inherit” a top line winger position. He showed he didn’t care. Top line or checking line, he was going to get on the scoresheet.

One point through one game. Four points through two games. Then five points through four games. He was finally showing he could play with the big boys.

But then deja vu kicked in and Hornqvist struggled to produce. He managed only six points in his next 27 games. Those doubting thoughts started to creep into the heads of the Nashville faithful once again.

Not from lack of trying, however. Hornqvist fired 83 shots on goal during that 27 game stretch, including games where he had five shots (four times), six shots and even 10 shots on goal. But, unfortunately, zero of those 83 went past the goal line.

But then game #32 came around. Columbus goaltender Steve Mason let one by him. Then, the next night, Tampa goalie Mike Smith let one pass through. Then Edmonton’s Jeff Deslauriers let two go by a couple days later. Since December 14, Hornqvist has never looked back, essentially averaging at least a goal every other game.

The 23-year old is on a tear. When he’s not scoring goals, he’s contributing in other ways. He has 17 helpers and 74 shots on goal in that 20 game stretch.

In seasons passed, the big knock on the Predators organization is that they were in desperate need of a flashy scoring winger and a Tomas Holmstrom-type player who’s willing to park himself in front of the net, deflect shots, create traffic, pick up rebounds and screen the netminder. Nashville hasn’t had a player like the latter since Scott Hartnell back in 2006-07. So while they still need the flashy scoring winger that strikes fear into the hearts of opposing goalies the second he touches the puck, Hornqvist has certainly filled the other void. The Predators, as a club, would be hovering around 10th or 11th place in the Western Conference without the service that Hornqvist provides.

Hornqvist also provides defensive responsibility as well. He’s tied with Dumont for the team lead in plus/minus with a plus-12 rating. What’s even more impressive, he’s the only Predator player with better than a plus-8 that played during that three game stretch back in October where the Preds were embarrassed by a combined score of 13-1. (In case you’re wondering, Hornqvist managed to finish that three game stretch with only a minus-1 rating).

It could be argued that Hornqvist’s willingness to park himself in the crease and his productivity while doing so, could be the biggest factor if Nashville wins a playoff round for the first time in their 11 year franchise history. Great teams that have a history of going a long way in the post season typically have players of Hornqvist’s ilk. And, since the Preds haven’t had a player like that since Hartnell (who was on Predators teams arguably before they were ready to win a round in the Stanley Cup Playoffs), Hornqvist could end up being the x-factor.

While there’s still a good two months worth of hockey to be played – not to mention six teams are within seven points of Nashville’s 7th place spot in the West – so a lot could happen between now and then. But, all things being equal, it is perfectly logical to see how Hornqvist setting up shop in front of the opposition’s netminder could be the deciding factor in the Sommet Center hosting a second round playoff game.

Factoring in the entire season thus far, Hornqvist is on pace for tying Arnott’s franchise record of 33 goals in a season. Since December 14 he’s been a completely different player however, so it’s easy to see how 35 or 40 goals could be well within reach. All that being said, 35 goals from anyone is welcome on a team like Nashville. But a second year guy who was shuffled back and fourth between the NHL and the AHL due to lack of production last season is hardly the expected source. But, he is the source, and the Predators are in the thick of the playoff hunt because of it.

Now if they could just add a flashy scoring winger at the deadline…