A healthy knee and some serious bling have given Marian Hossa the chance to feel as relaxed as he's ever been on the ice.
Chicago is lovin' it.
"A couple of years ago in Atlanta I had a similar start, but definitely I feel healthy, I feel relaxed and I'm playing with a great centerman and a great wing," Hossa told NHL.com Thursday. "I feel much lighter on the ice and I'm having more fun on the ice, but I try not to make a big deal out of it. It's only eight games."
Yeah, but it's a League-best 7 goals and 4 assists in those eight games, all with Jonathan Toews in the middle and fellow Slovak Tomas Kopecky on the left. Hossa hasn't been this prolific at the start of a season since 2006, when with the Thrashers he flew out of the gates, scoring 10 goals and dishing out 5 assists to help Atlanta jump out to a 7-1-1 start.
The Blackhawks, who play in St. Louis on Friday night, are 5-2-1 with Hossa leading the way and, for the time being, picking up the scoring slack for both Toews and Patrick Kane. The Hawks' dynamic young duo has combined for fewer goals (3) and points (10) than Hossa.
"He's at an amazing level right now. He is absolutely flying," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville told NHL.com. "He has the puck a lot, is dangerous one-on-one, dangerous coming back and stripping pucks. He's been a big part of our success right now. The success we owe a lot to him because I don't think we're firing on all cylinders, but he is right there."
He is because, No. 1, he's healthy and he had the summer to get himself into fantastic shape.
"I feel lighter than last year and it's showing in the speed and quickness," Hossa said.
Hossa had to wait until Nov. 25 of last season to play his first game as a Blackhawk because of a shoulder operation in August. Then, in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final against Philadelphia, Hossa said he suffered a grade 2 sprain of his MCL. He wouldn't have been able to play the in the series if he wasn't wearing a knee brace, but even with it he was limited.
"The brace saved me from going from a second degree to a worse sprain," Hossa said.
He kept his mouth shut about the injury because it's standard protocol for teams and players in the playoffs to reveal as little as possible, but Hossa still had to face questions about his lack of production in the later stages of the series.
He had 1 goal and 2 assists through Game 3, but was a minus-4 with zero points in Games 4-6.
"Yeah, but you know what, the drive I had, I was getting closer and closer to my goal and we had so many guys that were putting up points and helping offensively so I knew my role was to help defensively, on the PK," Hossa said. "I didn't care as much about the points because I was getting so close to my goal of winning the Cup. What other people were saying, I was blocking them out. In Pittsburgh (in 2008) I had so many points and we didn't win it, and nobody cares anymore about those points."
Nobody in Chicago, least of all Hossa, cares anymore that he didn't score in Games 4, 5 or 6. After failing to win the Cup with Pittsburgh in '08 and again with Detroit in '09, Hossa was the second Hawk to military press the silver trophy over his sopping wet head in Philadelphia on June 9, shortly after Kane scored the winner 4:06 into overtime.
"Definitely," Hossa said. "That's a big weight off my shoulders. I feel more relaxed now, just having fun again. I was trying to have fun before but answering all the questions after each game wasn't that much fun. I knew I had to deal with that, but now it's much more fun because nobody is going to be asking those questions anymore."
"You have admit that there was a lot of pressure," added Quenneville. "As we got deeper into the rounds, all of a sudden it was, 'Is Hossa going to win a Cup this year?' It alleviates that concern and gives him the chance to just play."
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He now admits the burden of having to answer all the questions about if he would ever do it was tough to deal with.
Hossa is quick to give credit Toews and Kopecky for his hot start. Those three showed Quenneville something when he put them together to start Game 5 against the Flyers, and they've given him no good reason to pull them apart.
At times, when matchups dictate, Quenneville does separate Hossa and Toews, but he always goes back to them.
"They played so well together in those games (5 and 6 of the Final)," Quenneville said. "Their production wasn't at a high end, but the way they controlled shifts and dominated with speed and size and controlled the puck, they generated a lot of momentum. That was more of a heavy-lifting type of line. That line was terrific then, and Hoss is at that same pace now."
Hossa predictably enjoys playing with Kopecky, but he said he works well with Toews because the young captain approaches each shift the same way as he does -- with a defense-first mentality that normally leads to a lot of creativity off a speedy rush.
"It helps because here is another player that likes the game the way you like the game, up and down, and that makes it easier," Hossa said. "This is two guys doing it the same way, on the same page. That's one point for why it works. It's incredible what he can do, play at both ends of the ice and be the leader that he is. That's pretty impressive."
So is what Hossa can do with a healthy knee and a ring finger covered in bling.
"He's as good he's ever been now," Quenneville said.
It's a tribute to him, and everything he's done and deserved is coming to fruition tonight with his jersey in the rafters. He's going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. And I said today, if he's not, take my stuff out. If he doesn't deserve to be in there first ballot, no one does. Except for (Wayne) Gretzky, I guess.
— Hockey Hall of Fame member Brett Hull on former teammate Mike Modano, whose No. 9 was retired by the Dallas Stars on Saturday