Tuesday June 9th, 2009

A straw poll for the players of the NHL: How many of you would like spend the next few years tapping home laser beam passes from Sidney Crosby?

Show of hands? Okay, good.

Now, how many would be willing to do it for something in the neighborhood of $7.5 million a season? That's a lot of hands...

Honestly, it's hard to imagine that anyone would turn down that offer -- not even Alexander ("Next time, I'll remember to keep my mouth shut") Semin.

But Marian Hossa did. He thrived alongside Crosby for a few months last spring and came within two games of winning the Stanley Cup with him in Pittsburgh. Then, when he had the chance to lock himself into that sweet situation for the rest of his career, Hossa passed, leaving Sidney and a truck full of cash for what he thought was his best chance to win a Stanley Cup in Detroit.

Now that's leading with your heart. Yinzers may be bitter about what they perceived as a slap in the face, but you have to admire a player who places team success before his own purse. Of course, it wasn't simply a matter of Hossa throwing in his lot with the Red Wings. They placed their own $7.4 million bet on him, counting on his hunger to be the focal point of their drive to repeat as Cup champs.

And now that they're so close, it's time he paid off.

Leaving one team for the other set Hossa up as the most compelling story entering the series, but this Cup final has yet to be defined in any way by Hossa's Choice.

No goals. No highlight moments. No noise.

That's not to say he's been an ineffective player for the Wings in the series. Hossa has established a consistent physical presence (his game-high eight hits on Saturday night testify to that) and he's been in the mix defensively. Nice contributions and part of the winning formula . . . but those are the terms by which depth players define their value. And Hossa's no mere grinder.

Truth is, he's been noticeably less effective for the Wings than he was last year in Pittsburgh, when he had 12 goals and 26 points in 20 playoff games. And that's why it's hard to overlook the fact that he could be the player to seal the deal with one impactful contest. This, after all, is a player who led the Red Wings with 40 goals in 74 regular season matches. That makes Hossa a bona fide sniper, at least from October through the first week of April.

Since then? He has just six goals in 21 games, and those were spread out in pairs over a total of just three contests -- Game 4 in each of the first three rounds. Otherwise, he's been blanked in 18 of those 21 games, including 12 of the last 13.

Is he pressing? Could be. With all he has on the line, emotions and nerves have to be taking a physical toll. It's hard to imagine the regular-season Hossa fluffing that glorious opportunity in Game 5 -- when Pavel Datsyuk's cross-ice pass set him up alone in front of Pittsburgh back-up Mathieu Garon and he failed even to get off a clean shot -- if he's not pushing too hard.

Hossa says he's more concerned about the wins right now than his own slump. Fair enough. One more victory and all those questions about whether he made the right choice to leave one championship-caliber team for another will go away.

But that last win won't come easy. His former mates remember all too well the pain of watching the Red Wings skate the Cup in their building last June. They will be motivated -- highly motivated -- to make sure that doesn't happen again.

If the Penguins clear that hurdle, it's Game 7 on Friday. Back to Joe Louis or not, that's a toss-up . . . and Hossa's new mates don't want it to come to that.

Hossa wants to be the one skating the old mug around Mellon tonight? Or maybe more to the point, the one who prevents Max Talbot from having his "I told you so" moment in the handshake line? Then Hossa needs to come up big.

You know, a "thanks for giving me a chance" game.

About time, isn't it?

As Pens fans are booing Hossa tonight, they might want to pause for a moment to consider the salary cap hell he'd have put them in if he had chosen to sign with the team last summer. Odds are that they'd be without the forward depth provided by Bill Guerin, Chris Kunitz and Ruslan Fedotenko.

Worse, it would have been nearly impossible to re-sign Jordan Staal and he might have been dealt off during the season for younger, cheaper, less valuable parts. Would that alternate universe version of the Penguins be within two games of the Cup? My guess is they wouldn't have made it past the Washington Capitals in the second round.

What does it say about Josh Harding that the Minnesota Wild apparently are willing to deal him within the division? The Avalanche and Oilers are in the market for a stopper, so it makes sense for new GM Chuck Fletcher to explore all his options, especially since it may be there aren't as many suitors as they were hoping for the backup, who turns 25 later this month. Or it may be that the Wild believe his success (defined more by his 2.21 GAA and .929 save percentage) is more a product of their system than his talent, and they're not at all concerned to face him eight times a year. Bet on the latter . . .

I understand why this rumor has legs, but the Bruins won't be trading Phil Kessel to the Avs for the third overall pick. The Bruins need to shed salary after signing David Krejci last week, and after their recent in-house shuffle Colorado could use an exciting, impact player to generate some positive buzz. But the Avs also have spending issues (they won't ante up the $4-$5 million per it will take to sign the RFA sniper) and Kessel's impending surgery is likely to cost him time at the beginning of next season. Considering their depth at center, the Bruins might be more willing to move Marc Savard to address their own cap issues . . .

According to a posting on its web site this morning, Salavat Yulayev of Russia's Kontinental Hockey League has signed free agent forward Viktor Kozlov to a three-year deal. Not an unexpected move, and no great loss for the Capitals. Kozlov always teased with that hulking frame and bursts of intensity, but the presence of those two elements made his unwillingness to battle consistently all the more frustrating. His $2.5 million can be better spent elsewhere by the Caps, preferably on someone with a bigger heart and a more reliable net presence.

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