WASHINGTON — Carl Hagelin knows the moment is coming, and he knows it will be a little strange.
The 30-year-old forward will be back in Pittsburgh for the first time as a member of the Washington Capitals when they face the Pittsburgh Penguins at PPG Paints Arena on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SNE, SNO, SNP, TVAS, ATTSN-PT, NBCSWA, NHL.TV).
A Stanley Cup winner with the Penguins in 2016 and 2017, Hagelin will be honored with a video tribute during the first television timeout in the first period. He understands well the oddity of a player from the Capitals, a heated rival he and the Penguins defeated on the way to winning the Cup in each of those seasons and the opponent that ended their three-peat bid last season, receiving such a tribute in Pittsburgh.
“I was able to help them win the Stanley Cup two times,” Hagelin said. “But it definitely will be different because I play for one of their biggest rivals now. It would be the similar if I was with the (Philadelphia) Flyers.”
Hagelin’s return will be a secondary storyline in an important game for each team. The Capitals (41-21-7) have won seven straight and lead the Metropolitan Division with 89 points, four more than the second-place New York Islanders (39-22-7) and six more than the third-place Penguins (37-23-9).
Hagelin had 83 points (27 goals, 56 assists) in 195 games over four seasons with the Penguins before being traded to the Los Angeles Kings for forward Tanner Pearson on Nov. 14. Hagelin was subsequently traded to the Capitals for a third-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft and a conditional sixth-round choice in the 2020 NHL Draft on Feb. 21.
The veteran forward knew his stay in Los Angeles would likely be temporary because he is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1 and the Kings are not in contention for a Stanley Cup Playoff berth. But he said the trade from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles took him a little by surprise.
“We weren’t playing well at the time and they were looking to make a change,” Hagelin said.
Hagelin would’ve received his video tribute when the Kings visited PPG Paints Arena on Dec. 15 had he not missed that game with a knee injury that sidelined him for 20 games from Nov. 25-Jan. 3. So, as fate would have it, his initial game back will come in a Capitals uniform.
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby acknowledged that will be, “Weird. Really Weird.”
“He’s a guy who played lot of important roles for us over the years: A penalty kill guy, a great guy in the lineup, great guy in the room,” Crosby said. “He had a great attitude every day. He was someone who always raised his level of play in the playoffs.”
Hagelin had 21 points (10 goals, 11 assists) in 48 playoff games with Pittsburgh, including 16 (six goals, 10 assists) in 24 games during its run to the Stanley Cup in 2016. Skating on the HBK line with Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel, Hagelin led the Penguins with seven points (three goals, four assists) in six games against the Capitals in the Eastern Conference Second Round that season.
Including three times with the New York Rangers (2012, 2013, 2015), Hagelin faced the Capitals six times in the playoffs. He was on the winning team in the first five series before the Washington defeated Pittsburgh in six games in the Eastern Conference Second Round last season and went on to win the Stanley Cup for the first time.
In a strange way, the familiarity from so many postseason matchups has helped Hagelin feel comfortable quickly with the Capitals. He has three points (two goals, one assist) in eight games with Washington, including the winning breakaway goal in a 3-1 victory against the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday.
His two goals with the Capitals equal his combined output from 38 games this season with the Penguins and the Kings (two goals, six assists).
“It’s been good,” Hagelin said. “I started feeling better in LA coming back from my injury, and once I got here I had some confidence coming in and obviously there’s a mutual respect between the players on this team and myself from playing against each other a lot. So, it wasn’t really a hard transition.”
Hagelin’s speed and tenacity have had the positive impact the Capitals envisioned on their forecheck and penalty kill, which has killed off 16 consecutive power plays over the past five games, including five against the Jets.
“He’s clutch and he’s been huge for us on the penalty kill,” Capitals forward Tom Wilson said. “His skating is elite and we’re happy to have him on our side.”
Hagelin remains in touch with some of the Penguins, including Crosby, Kessel and good friend, Patric Hornqvist. He imagines, “It will be weird for them,” more than it is for him on Tuesday.
He said facing the Penguins in the Kings’ 5-2 win at Los Angeles on Jan. 12 helped get some of the awkwardness out of the way for him.
“It’s definitely different to see him on the other side but I wish him the best,” Penguins forward Jake Guentzel said. “Just to see him over there is going to be weird feeling, but I really liked the person.”
NHL.com correspondent Craig Merz contributed to this report.