By Michael Farber, SI.com
PITTSBURGH -- As the clock ticked toward the 3 p.m. NHL trading deadline on the last Tuesday of February, Atlanta Thrashers general manager Don Waddell had the most valuable asset on the market, Marian Hossa, an occasionally brilliant and often confounding right wing. He also had a couple of options where he could park the player he was determined to move, notably the Montreal Canadiens and New Jersey Devils.
Around 1:30, the marketplace started growing as crowded as a Casablanca bazaar because the Pittsburgh Penguins were about to muscle their way into the discussion.
The Penguins were already a solid team that had done a solid thing earlier that day, picking up defenseman Hal Gill from Toronto in case Pittsburgh ran into Jaromir Jagr and the New York Rangers in the playoffs, a bit of serendipity, if not outright prescience, on the part of general manager Ray Shero. But according to several sources, Shero was unsure about whether he should go all-in and chase Hossa. The price would be high for a player who is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent July 1, likely nothing more than a marquee rental given the Penguins' salary structure. (Pittsburgh still has to sign Evgeni Malkin this summer.)
But there was another factor contributing to the GM's understandable reticence. Shero was building toward something special in Pittsburgh, but a rash grab for Hossa might have been rushing things a bit for a young team considering the rent-a-forward's spotty playoff history.
In the spring, Hossa sounded a lot like, 'No, sir.'
In 55 playoff games prior to this season, he had managed 13 goals and 35 points -- basically third-line numbers. He had a few commendable performances when he played for Ottawa, including one series against Toronto, but he never averaged a point-per-game in any full spring.
Last year he was a cipher in Atlanta's four-game capitulation against the Rangers; Hossa exited with a single assist. Waldo would have been easier to spot. But Hossa still represented the trade deadline Catch O' the Day, especially with the Penguins desperate to upgrade captain Sidney Crosby's wingers. With Shero's bosses clamoring for something more dramatic than the towering Gill, the GM swallowed hard and anted up for Hossa and another Atlanta UFA winger, Pascal Dupuis. The cost: two forwards from his lineup, the popular Colby Armstrong and Erik Christensen, plus the Penguins' first round draft choice from 2007, Angelo Esposito, and another No. 1 draft choice in 2008.
Through the first eight games of the 2008 playoffs, Hossa, even while averaging a point a game (three goals, five assists), had been mostly ballast -- especially against the Rangers. Then with New York making noises of making this a series with a Game 4 win and a third-period rally that pushed Game 5 into overtime, the Slovak tapped into the reservoir of talent that once moved former Thrashers coach Bob Hartley to call him the most complete player in the NHL.
Hossa could have had five goals in the match, but the missed opportunities hardly mattered because he dug deep and scored the important one, the winner from the slot on a broken play at 7:10 of overtime as Pittsburgh won, 3-2 on Sunday to eliminate the Rangers in five games.
Perhaps the goal perhaps dispatched Jagr to the joys of the Russian Super League ("I'm going to go where it makes me happy," said Jagr, who will discuss his next stop with his parents) and Brendan Shanahan to retirement ("I'm not thinking about that now," Shanahan said).
Well, we will know soon enough about the future of those New York worthies. The only certainty is "the little monkey" on Hossa'sback. "People were saying he doesn't get the clutch goal in the playoffs," said Dupuis, who was the first to mention Hossa's personal planet of the apes hopped off, ambled out of Mellon Arena and headed across the street to the Marriott for a beer.
Hossa, who conceded he had had some good playoffs and bad playoffs but knew nothing of the simian world, said the goal was the biggest he had scored in the playoffs. Considering it was his first in overtime -- and a series clincher -- he was not exactly going out on a limb here.
"I don't think any of us in here thought about that," Penguins defenseman Ryan Whitney said of Hossa's springs. "He was 19, 20 years old when he was in Ottawa at the start. Then in Atlanta last year, well ... you're only as good as your teammates. Teammates make guys better.
He comes to a team where we've got Sidney and Evgeni and (Sergei) Gonchar and (Petr) Sykora. All those guys who can make a player look better. Not saying that they alone make him look unbelievable, but ..."
While the winner will erase some of Hossa's playoff reputation -- the puck bounded off New York defenseman Dan Girardi's shin and the winger sneaked it through goalie Henrik Lundqvist's pads -- the play he made to create Pittsburgh's first goal was far more representative of latent greatness. With the puck about to leak out of the attacking zone on a second-period power play in a scoreless game, Hossa sprawled, extended his stick and swept the puck back into play. Maybe 15 seconds later he was rewarded, finishing a tic-tac-toe play that began with Crosby along the boards, Malkin (a goal and 10 shots) in the middle and Hossa to Lundqvist's left. "That dive to keep in the puck was probably more impressive than the (game-winning goal)," Whitney said. "That's tenacity and work ethic. That's what wins games, especially in the playoffs."
Of course, talent also is a reasonable component of the formula, and Hossa's skill has raised the bar for a team that resembles the nascent Oilers of the 1980s at the start of their dynasty. Crosby, like Wayne Gretzky before him, can make any player better, of course, but, as Whitney noted, "a player that good deserves a star winger. And he's got one."
Now the Philadelphia Flyers arrive for the Eastern Conference finals, a resumption of what has become the NHL's most hostile rivalry. For Hossa, it means no more monkeying around.