Commentary

Crosby to Hossa, beards to bears

Updated: May 30, 2009, 3:27 PM ET
By Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

DETROIT -- With the Stanley Cup finals set to start Saturday, here are the latest news and notes from the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins in our annual Cup finals primer:

Hossa's Choice

There was a moment Friday when someone asked Detroit forward Marian Hossa if he wished he and the Red Wings weren't going to face his old teammates from Pittsburgh in the finals.

"If I wish the Penguins would not be in the final? Well, that's a difficult question," Hossa said. "But to tell you the truth, they're here and they deserve to be here because they're one of the best. They beat really good teams and they are in the final. They deserve it. It's going to be fun. It's going to be a big challenge."

The Hossa sidebar is one of the most intriguing storylines of this series.

The top free agent last summer eschewed an offer to stay with Pittsburgh to sign a one-year deal with the Red Wings, ostensibly because he believed it gave him the best chance to win the first championship of his career.

"Regrets? Not at all. I've got the chance to go to the final and win the Cup, so not at all," Hossa said. "Going through the summer, it was a difficult decision to make. You know, it came down to two choices, like I said. You know, I could be a good scout because I picked the two best teams right now."

He was asked about a chance offseason meeting with Penguins captain Sidney Crosby in the Bahamas, where the two chatted about Hossa's decision before he signed with Detroit.

"Well, I don't like go through all the details of the vacation, but me and Sid, we had a talk," Hossa said. "We talked about stuff. You know, we'll stay in touch. When I made the decision, I wrote Sid, I think it was e-mail, and I tried to explain to him. Then, during the year, we played here. We had dinner and we talked about some stuff."

"Obviously, he's a smart guy, he understands things and he definitely would have liked me to stay there in Pittsburgh," Hossa added. "But like I said, sometimes you have to make decisions and it was a really hard one, and I had to make it and that's what I did."

For their part, whatever hurt feelings there might have been, those are in the past. A lot of water under the bridge.

"Yeah, I mean, at the time it was disappointing," Crosby said. "It wasn't harsh feelings towards him, it was just the fact that he wasn't going to be with us. You know, if you would have asked me right after the season, I probably would have said 100 percent sure he's coming back. I thought he really enjoyed it in Pittsburgh.

"It was what it was, and we all moved on and we have since then. There's obviously a storyline there, but that's not something we're really too focused on."

The second finals

The Washington-Pittsburgh series in the second round in many ways was the finals before the finals. With so much hype, attention and pressure in that series, it really felt like it was more than a second-round series. The Penguins believe they can use that experience to their advantage in now preparing for the actual Cup finals.

"I would say so. It's one of those series that happens only every once in a while," star Penguins blueliner Sergei Gonchar said Friday. "It was something special. Going through it will obviously help everybody."

Crosby also endorsed the theory.

"I would say that's pretty accurate, to go through something like that, especially seven games," Crosby said. "That's not just a test physically, but mentally having to deal with all of that stuff. So I think we feel like we've gone through some tough battles that we've found a way to come out of on top. And this is another challenge here that we feel like we're ready for."

The Wing way

One of the great things about the Stanley Cup playoffs is it is often a journey of self-discovery.

Take Detroit defenseman Brett Lebda of the Detroit Red Wings. In 19 playoff games last season, he averaged 12:33 in ice time. This spring, in regulation games, Lebda's ice time rarely approached 16 minutes, and yet, there he was in the decisive game against Chicago logging 25:05 and playing with the heart of a lion in the absence of captain Nicklas Lidstrom and Jonathan Ericsson on the blue line.

"You learn, and especially for me, you learn a lot about yourself as a player," Lebda said. "Being able to step in and play that much when I'm not used to that role was a lot of fun ... but, you know, you get to learn a lot about yourself and what you're capable of."

Lebda, of course, reflects the Wings' age-old approach to developing players while refusing to rush them into situations for which they are ill-prepared.

"They pride themselves on that, not rushing their players," Lebda said. "We've all spent our time in Grand Rapids. And being developed down there, it makes the transition a little bit easier when you're getting to play a lot of minutes down there and being able to come up here and perform at whatever role you need to perform.

"And that's what they do in this system and they believe in it and it's worked for them. So it's good to have that weapon, if you want to call it that, and it's the Red Wing way."

Wanting Pittsburgh

Leading up to the Cup finals, so much has been said about Hossa's decision to leave Pittsburgh for Detroit. But Matt Cooke is a guy who sat down with his agent, Pat Morris, and purposely picked out the Penguins. So there you go. Hossa picked Detroit and Cooke picked Pittsburgh. All is good in the world. OK, so it's not a fair exchange, but the gritty Cooke has been a nice addition this season, playing some of his best hockey in years. He's happy with the decision he made last summer.

"At the end of the day, for me, Pittsburgh had signed its players long-term and had done a great job in my eyes of setting this team up for long-term success," said Cooke. "Maybe that didn't mean getting back to the Cup this year, but the notion that we were going to win games and be in the playoffs and get a chance to prove ourselves year in and year out, that was appealing to me."

Cooke and the coach

Cooke wears a knee brace. Why? Because Dan Bylsma nailed him on a borderline hit four years ago when the Penguins coach was playing for the Anaheim Ducks. Cooke laughed while recalling the play.

"It was in 2005. He blames my defenseman. I blame myself for going back to help my defenseman," Cooke said. "I went back and took a reverse from our defenseman, turned up and he came out from behind our defenseman. I didn't even know or see him coming.

"He admits that it might have been a smidgen late, but he refuses to admit that he hung a knee. I do now wear a brace on my knee. The first time I hurt my knee was Dan Bylsma. I don't let him let it down, either. He hears about it once every other week. He walks in when I put it on and I say, 'This is because of you.'"

Draper and the kid

Darren Helm is being labeled as the young Kris Draper. Which makes Draper what? Old?

"Yeah, I've actually found a bit of gray in my beard," Draper said with a laugh Friday. "But Helmer and I have actually done a lot of stuff together. We do a lot of work on faceoffs together, we talk a lot about stuff. It's kind of ironic that he and I are sitting here together in this booth. I think he thinks that I set this up even though I didn't. But if there was stuff he wants to talk about, I've told him I'm there for him."

Draper said the 22-year-old Helm will be counted on in the Cup finals.

"He'll have a big responsibility in this series, as well," said Draper. "[The Penguins] only dress three centers. When you're out on the ice, you're going to see Crosby, Malkin or Staal. When we have a guy like Helmer playing with as much confidence ... he's doing great for our hockey team right now."

Battle of the bruises

In every playoff series, you can count on the most difficult battle being waged within a three-foot radius of the opposing goal. And in the middle of it will be No. 96, Tomas Holmstrom.

"Yeah, it doesn't really matter who's in front of me. I just try to get in there and do my screen and do my job," Holmstrom said. "I had a really tough job with [Chris] Pronger, [Scott] Niedermayer, so I think that's one of the tougher ones to stand in front of the net on."

Holmstrom and the Wings survived that second-round, seven-game tilt against the Anaheim Ducks. Now, against Pittsburgh, watch for Holmstrom to be in the middle of it with Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi.

"For sure, it's going to be a big, big test. Especially Gill's got a big, long reach. It's going to be fun. I look forward to it," Holmstrom said.

For a guy who knows he's going to get mauled as part of his job, Holmstrom said you just have to prepare yourself for the punishment.

"I think you have to have your mindset," he said. "That's a big, big part of it. If you have your mindset ready and you're focused and you know you're going to go out there and you know you're going to get cross-checked two, three times before the pucks get there, you suck it up, you take it, and you can't retaliate because if you do, you're going to get two minutes in the box."

It was PG, honest

Byslma was asked about Bill Guerin's impact on the Penguins after arriving at the trade deadline.

"Well, you know, Billy Guerin is the type of guy that walked in on the first day and immediately cracked a joke at our captain," Bylsma said. "That's the type of guy he is. It was a good-humored joke, it was funny, and everyone laughed, including Sidney. And he does that pretty much every day."

So, does Guerin remember the joke?

"I don't and I'm not telling you," Guerin said.

So, not suitable for a family publication?

"It's totally suitable. It was clean and it was witty and an excellent delivery, but I just won't [tell]," he said.

The veteran forward's value to the team goes far beyond comic relief. Guerin has 12 points in his past 12 games and has found a nice groove playing with Crosby on the team's top line.

"He's also a guy who knows when to say the serious thing, and he's probably said that five or six times at any given point in the playoffs and the regular season where he thought it was important he say the right thing and a serious thing," Bylsma said. "He was a guy last series that pointed out before playing Carolina that the best thing they do is play as a team and have a battle level and continually bring that. And if we didn't match that battle level and weren't ready for that battle level, we'd find ourselves in a very, very tough series. He was that guy. He was the guy who pointed that out."

Is there a secret to finding the right place and time to say things in the locker room?

"You know what, to be honest with you, I don't know," Guerin said. "And sometimes, when you say something, a lot of times you sit down afterwards and say, 'Ah geez, should I have really said that right then and there?' Or you know what, you might run it by another guy in the room and kind of clear it with somebody else first.

"But you say what's on your mind. We've got an open group of guys and everybody says something at one time or another. I've been on enough teams now where I feel comfortable going into a relatively new room and saying whatever I want to say."

No time for bear now

This will be the last time it comes up -- unless, of course, the Detroit Red Wings drop two straight at home -- but having to play back-to-back games Saturday and Sunday and Game 3 on Tuesday in Pittsburgh continues to rankle the Wings just a little.

"The great thing about it is, they don't ask me. It's kind of like refereeing, they don't ask me about that either," Babcock joked Friday. "But it just seems to me we have two of the greatest teams in the world, star-power-wise for the game. I don't think we need 14 days off. But there's a reason the NFL, who, in my opinion, is the biggest promotional horse maybe besides NASCAR in sport, takes two weeks off before the Super Bowl. It's called to hype it up."

What seems strange to Babcock was the compressed Cup finals schedule after the conference finals were stretched as far as a series can be stretched.

"We had a ton of time," he said. "I mean, I could have went bear hunting every series in between games ... so I guess the bottom line is, we're here, we're ecstatic to be here, and we're excited to be playing the games wherever they're scheduled and whenever they're scheduled."

Cup finals yin and yang

This marks the third trip to the Stanley Cup finals for Babcock as a head coach since 2003, when he was the bench boss of the Anaheim Ducks. He understands that, in the coming days, one of these two teams is going to feel pretty rotten.

"The thing that stands out in my mind being through it before is just how hard it is to win," Babcock said. "One day, you're going to feel like a million bucks, and the next day you're going to feel like your heart is ripped out of your chest. That's just the way it is, but that's what makes it so much fun.

"Besides family things, it's the most fun you can ever have in your whole life, to win that great trophy, to touch it, to have your name printed on it, to share it with your family and the community and the people that have helped you along the way.

"So, to me, that's a great thing, and I don't think a thing you can ever get enough of."

Gray beards

Guerin and Craig Adams had some gray hairs in their playoff beards, reminding us they're not young anymore. Adams was sitting beside Cooke on Friday at the players' media availability when he poked fun at the veteran center's beard.

"We got to get him and Billy some Just For Men for those beards," Cooke laughed.

Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun cover the NHL for ESPN.com.