- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Apparently, the hockey gods exist and do they ever have a wicked sense of humor.

Case in point: Marian Hossa.

A year ago, he was wearing a Penguins uniform and watching the visiting Red Wings hoist the Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh. But unless Hossa plays a much more productive role than he has so far this series, he could wind up wearing his Red Wings jersey Friday night and watching the Penguins hoist that same cup in Detroit.

“I could be a good scout,” Hossa joked before Game 6, “because I picked the two best teams.”

But he wasn’t laughing after the Penguins scratched out a 2-1 win Tuesday night at home to even the series, setting up a Game 7 for the 15th time in NHL history _ this time back in Hockeytown. Because when someone asked Hossa moments after the loss whether he considered that scenario last summer, he shot back, “Who would?”

“Would you?” he continued. “The situation now is how it is and we have to deal with that. We have to make sure that we give 100 percent and play good at home.”

Home is a relative term for any professional athlete, but it’s more relative for Hossa than most. The 30-year-old winger was born in what used to be Czechoslovakia, he’s represented what is now Slovakia in international competition, was drafted by Ottawa, eventually shipped to Atlanta and arrived in Pittsburgh last season just ahead of the trading deadline.

Hossa was comfortable enough at each of his previous stops to fill up a trophy case with individual awards and get named to four NHL All-Star teams. But he seemed a particularly good fit with the Penguins, where he played alongside Sidney Crosby and finally shed his reputation for underachieving in the postseason.

Hossa notched 26 points in last season’s playoffs, trailing only Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg and linemate Crosby, but it may have been the point that got away that haunted him the most. In the final seconds of Game 6 of that Stanley Cup, Detroit goalkeeper Chris Osgood stopped his shot from close range to preserve the 3-2 win, followed shortly by the Red Wings’ celebration on what was Hossa’s most recently adopted home rink.

That scene motivated him enough that when free-agent offers started rolling in, Hossa did very little deliberating. Less than a month after the Penguins were bounced, he pushed aside long-term contract offers from Pittsburgh, Edmonton, Montreal and Vancouver _ including at least one his agent claimed was upward of $90 million _ and signed a one-year, $7.45 million deal with the Red Wings.

“I felt,” Hossa said at the time, “like I would have a little better of a chance to win the Cup in Detroit.”

After the Red Wings’ devastating 5-0 win back home in Game 5, it seemed like a smart bet. And all those boos Hossa endured every time he touched the puck during Games 2 and 3 in Pittsburgh seemed like a small price to pay.

But the reason he got booed so rarely Tuesday night had little to do with Hossa wringing a kind of grudging admiration from his former fans. Instead it was because of how little he touched the puck, though he wasn’t let off the hook completely.

After the second period on the NBC telecast, former NHL player, coach, general manager and current TV analyst Mike Milbury was asked what Red Wings coach Mike Babcock was telling his players in the locker room. Milbury looked straight into the camera and pretended he was addressing Hossa.

“You wanted a Stanley Cup? Why don’t you prove it to your teammates?” Milbury said, his voice rising. “Don’t let everybody else carry the mail.”

It hasn’t helped that Hossa is still looking for his first goal of the finals, or that his former Penguins teammates have kept enough bodies close enough to neutralize his speed. Hossa laughed off the boos early in the series by saying, “Not many people know that boos in Slovak means ‘Go, Marian, go.’”

But he admits now that he’s pressing, eager to pay back his current teammates for the support they’ve shown him all season. But the guys Hossa left behind feel like they’ve got just as much to prove.

“Last year was tough,” Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. “Now we’re alive and we’re going to Game 7. It’s awesome.”

It will be that _ and ironic, besides _ if the Penguins wind up bringing home the very cup that Hossa skipped town to collect.

___

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org

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