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Back again in the East, Hagelin's speed, skill coming in handy for Penguins

Last spring, Carl Hagelin was preparing with his New York Rangers to take on Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening round of the playoffs.

Some 12 months later, a June trade to the Anaheim Ducks and then a January trade to those same Penguins squeezed in between, it is not lost on the former University of Michigan winger what the standings project as a first-round matchup.

"Yeah, it is pretty ironic if that happens," Hagelin said of a potential Rangers-Penguins first-round series. "Being on the other side last year with New York and now this year in Pittsburgh. It would be a fun matchup, two great teams. There's a few more games to be played here, and we'll see what happens. But we're playing good hockey right now and we're looking forward to the playoffs."

The New York Islanders are two points back of the Rangers with a game in hand and both teams play Thursday night, so different scenarios still abound.

But it could happen. Being part of another Rangers-Penguins series was the last thing on Hagelin's mind last summer when the Blueshirts dispatched him to the Ducks in a cap-related move. I caught up with Hagelin during training camp in Anaheim in September, and his exuberance at being part of something special with the Cup-contending Ducks was palpable. But it just didn't fly in Anaheim.

"It's hard to say, you've seen it happen to different players," Hagelin said over the phone Wednesday. "I'm not sure. We got off to a bad start as a team in Anaheim, myself included, I didn't play the way I wanted to. I started figuring it out the last 6-7 games in Anaheim, I really started feeling like a big part of the team and, more importantly, I was playing the way I wanted. Then I got traded and I had a lot of confidence going into my first game in Pittsburgh. I knew the way Sully [Mike Sullivan] coaches and his system, so there really wasn't much of an adjustment for me. It reminded me of my first couple of years in the league when you just went out there and played hard."

Not that Hagelin's game is purely based on his offensive numbers, but he put up just 12 points (4-8) in 43 games in Anaheim and has since piled up 26 points (10-16) in 35 games with the Penguins. Since the Jan. 16 trade that sent David Perron and Adam Clendening to the Ducks, the Penguins are 27-9-1.

It's been night and day for the native of Sodertalje, Sweden.

"North-south player with speed," said an executive from an opposing Eastern Conference team. "Needs open ice. Anaheim likes to play laterally. The Rangers and Penguins are similar. He needs a center who moves his feet; he didn't really have that in Anaheim despite the great players there. He had that in New York, and he's got that now in Pittsburgh. He's not a front-line offensive player but an effective second-line player and a good penalty killer."

The Hagelin who was most effective in New York is back.

"Super teammate," said Rangers broadcaster Joe Micheletti. "Very well liked. Can play a variety of roles, bounce from top six to bottom six. And I think he plays his best hockey in the playoffs, which tells you something about his character."

Sullivan was an assistant on the Rangers' staff during Hagelin's early years in the NHL. The reacquaintance with the coach has helped Hagelin's adjustment in Pittsburgh, as he clearly likes the way Sullivan preaches the game.

"We really push the pace, and we don't like to sit back," said Hagelin, 27. "We try to play north-south with a lot of speed, and try to be aggressive on the forecheck. That's where we've scored a lot of goals as of late, we're getting to pucks, everyone is joining in the rush, we're hard to defend and, in doing so, we also have a lot of speed in coming back helping our D on the breakout and try to limit the time in our own end."

Playing on a line with center Nick Bonino and right winger Phil Kessel, Hagelin's trio has been lighting the lamp. The line was formed when center Evgeni Malkin was injured last month.

"Our first two games weren't great, but after that we've been solid. We've found some chemistry," said Hagelin, whose two goals Tuesday night in Ottawa were key in the Penguins' 5-3 comeback win. "We've done a good job of getting some big goals for our team, while at the same time playing pretty solid defensively. We try to use our speed as much as we can. When you have an extremely smart center like Bonino in the middle, it makes things a lot easier."

And with Crosby having another Hart Trophy-worthy season and defenseman Kris Letang playing the best hockey of his career, the Penguins have rocketed up the standings, winning 13 of their past 14 games while filling the net like nobody's business: 56 goals (not counting shootout deciders) for a whopping average of four goals per game during this stretch.

"I've never been part of a team that's scoring that much, and I'm not sure I've been part of a team that's had 13 wins in 14 games, either," Hagelin said. "Just one of those things where a lot of different guys are stepping up every night. ... It's a good feeling, but you can't get too high or too low in this league, that's one thing I've learned. The playoffs are a different animal, and we want to win as many games as we can going into the playoffs."

The game Thursday night is a possible second-round playoff preview, visiting the Washington Capitals. For the Penguins, the focus is to lock up second place in the Metropolitan Division.

"For us we want to get home-ice advantage in the first round, and if we get a point [Thursday night], we'll get that," Hagelin said. "Our focus is on winning that game. They're a really good team, and they're trying to do everything they can to get good playoff habits. It should be a fun game."