Sometimes nice guys can finish first. Or, in Marian Hossa's case, at least have a chance to finish first.
What an odyssey it has been to get a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup. Never mind beginning as a pro with a revamped skating stride necessitated by a knee injury in his last year of junior hockey. Just this season's ups and downs alone are worthy of Kerouac-esque On The Road status.
Slowed by an early season malady, Hossa struggled to show the top-form of his previous season when he led the Atlanta Thrashers to the franchise's first playoff appearance. Of course, detractors were quick to point out Hossa's failure to score in the series sweep by the New York Rangers as another indicator that he comes up small when the games are big. That sentiment goes back to his days with the young and talented Ottawa Senators when their provincial rivals -- the in-your-face veteran laden Toronto Maple Leafs -- rudely and abruptly sent them to the sidelines each spring.
So, with impending free agency on the July 1 horizon, Hossa forced the Thrashers to dispatch him to the youthful and talented Pittsburgh Penguins -- unwilling as he was to sign a new contract with the team that was headed for the third pick in the entry draft. The Pens planned for Hossa to play alongside 20-year old Captain Sidney Crosby. The reality turned out to be that Crosby was slowly recovering from a nagging ankle sprain and Hossa sustained a knee knock in his first game in a Pens' uniform. The two would have little time to get used to one another.
Well, the two are in sync now. Seemingly perfectly suited, Crosby and Hossa are offensively gifted players distinguished by their outstanding effort and acumen on the defensive side of the game. Both can be breathtaking in the open ice, yet each is equally comfortable along the boards, with the ability to make plays in those claustrophobic confines. They excel at supporting in the trenches -- being available for the cycle pass as the other holds the puck impressively while dogged by a defender.
Suffice it to say that the early delay in time spent on the same line is no longer an issue. Crosby leads all playoff scorers. Hossa had the second round series-clinching goal in overtime and posted a 1-3-4 line in the game that ended the Eastern Conference Final against Philadelphia. His playoff production in meaningful games seems to be just fine, thank you, rendering his choker reputation a thing of the past and maybe even an exaggeration by an Ottawa market that was frustrated and in need of a scapegoat. (Hossa scored 16 points for the Sens in 18 playoff games in 2002-03, and had 10 in 12 postseason contests in 2001-02.)
That must seem like a long time ago to Hossa. His quiet demeanor and easy-going nature make him an easy target when things don't go well for a team. Even in those times, he has just put his head down and done what comes naturally: playing hard, honest hockey all over the ice. Understandably, he is having the time of his life and as he put it, "Winning always makes things easier."
Well, Marian Hossa's contributions are making winning easier for the Penguins and if it hasn't made him any more loquacious, his smile is surely more prominent these days -- the kind of broad, natural grin you'd expect from a truly nice guy who has hit his stride at long last.
Darren Eliot is TV analyst and Hockey Development Liaison for the Atlanta Thrashers. He also appears on Versus playoff broadcasts and Westwood One radio.