- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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CHICAGO -- A year ago, Marian Hossa stood in the heart of the Detroit Red Wings' dressing room, with the sounds of Pittsburgh Penguins celebrations echoing in the background, and took his medicine from a media throng that smelled blood.
He had jumped ship from Pittsburgh to Detroit before the 2008-09 season and lost out famously on his gamble. In doing so, he had gone scoreless in the seven-game Stanley Cup finals. More to the point, the controversy surrounding his unique free-agent decision had got to him, he told us that night. It was an honest admission many pro athletes would have never revealed.
"Whether you like it or not, there's lots of pressure," Hossa said that June 12 night. "You learn when the pressure is on and you learn how to handle it. It's squeezing you. It's a pretty tough one. I tried to battle hard, but I couldn't get anything done offensively. ... It's not easy. We've got lots of things going on. I tried to block it, but you're human. It's not easy."
Now, he's again back on the NHL's biggest stage, a third straight trip to the finals with a third different team. It's a neat hat trick, as long as it doesn't end with an 0-for-3 tally.
He also hopes to score; not only because of his doughnut in last season's Cup finals, but more pertinently because of the two postseason goals in 16 games he brings into this year's finale.
"You know what? I try not to think about it too much," said Hossa. "Obviously I'm not happy with only the two goals. But on the other hand, right now, it doesn't matter who is scoring. The most important thing right now is the wins. When things aren't going offensively, you work as hard as you can on your defensive game."
He's not playing badly. Having covered most of his games this postseason, we can attest Hossa has been strong on the puck, diligent in his own end and helped linemate Patrick Sharp enjoy a strong postseason.
Still, how can a three-time 40-goal scorer struggle so badly to find the back of the net this spring?
"That's because I'm always shooting the puck," Sharp said with a chuckle. "You know what, it's a good question. There's been a lot of talk about that, but it doesn't matter. We are where we are. We need Hoss to be doing the things he's doing, not so much scoring goals, but he really helps me as a centerman in our own zone.
"He's one of the best two-way wingers in the league. He comes back hard every shift, he's strong on the puck, he makes smart plays. So, sure, we'd like everyone to be scoring goals, but at this time of year, as long as you're winning games nobody cares."
True, if there's a Stanley Cup celebration at the end of this series, Hossa's offensive struggles will be a moot point. But they aren't right now, not when he's in the first season of a 12-year deal that pays him $7.9 million annually for the first seven years. You don't pay a player that much money to be good defensively.
We believe this is a seminal moment in the Slovak star's career. He has to raise his game in this championship series to prove he belongs with the greats. This is the moment the Hawks were banking on when they handed him the 12-year, $62.8 million deal this past July 1.
But if he's not scoring, it's a colossal waste of money, not to mention salary-cap space, and the latter is a more pressing issue for this Hawks team.
Here's the thing about Hossa: If he wasn't such a gentleman about the whole thing, if he wasn't so darn polite when asked every single day for the past month why he's not scoring, this story might have been much bigger. But the reason it's been able to percolate somewhat quietly behind all the Hawks' feel-good stories is not because the team is winning, but because Hossa is such a well-liked player in the dressing room.
Scoring aside, the Hawks believe Hossa brought another important element to their young squad, one that has already paid dividends.
"I think more than anything, he played a style that we were trying to instill in some of our younger guys, which is he plays both ends of the ice," said Hawks GM Stan Bowman. "And I think we've seen that in the playoffs here. He's contributed offensively, but I think when you watch the game closely, you notice that he does all those little things so well, and I think it has rubbed off on some of our younger players. We got a lot of talented young offensive guys here. You want them to be surrounded by players that play hockey the right way."
Hossa hasn't allowed the goal slump to affect his work ethic, and that's something the younger stars on this team can emulate. In the meantime, it truly feels as though the hockey gods are conspiring against Hossa. Faced with an open net in Game 3 against San Jose in the Western Conference finals (a gimme really), his quick release was thwarted by a kick save and a beauty from ... Sharks defenseman Rob Blake. At that point, if you are Hossa, you just have to laugh, which he did when reminded of the Blake save.
"I'm just throwing the puck at the net, I'm not trying to make any fancy plays," Hossa said. "I'll keep working hard, stay positive and good things will happen. Maybe I'll get a garbage goal and that will get it started."
And maybe this Cup finals won't end in utter disappointment for a third straight year. Can it?
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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