CHICAGO -- It was a goal that got the Chicago Blackhawks started in a 4-1 victory Sunday in Game 2 of their Western Conference Second Round series against the Minnesota Wild.
It was also a great example of how valuable veteran forward Marian Hossa is to the defending Stanley Cup champions.
Midway through the first period in a scoreless tie, Hossa used his experience, speed and skill to create the first of his three assists in the win that put Chicago up 2-0 in the best-of-7 series. Late coming back toward the Blackhawks' end of the rink, Hossa saw a potential breakaway developing with the puck in the Chicago defensive zone.
Once Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith got the puck to forward Bryan Bickell near the boards, Hossa knew he'd be wide open.
"I saw the puck was almost [a] 50-50," Hossa said Monday, prior to the Blackhawks leaving for Game 3 Tuesday at Xcel Energy Center (9 p.m. ET; CNBC, TSN, RDS2). "So I was coming back, and all of a sudden I started slowing down. I tried to read the play, what was happening. I kind of knew if my [defensive mark] got the puck, I could still catch him, but all of a sudden I saw [Bickell] got the puck. I turned around, he saw me and great pass."
Hossa took Bickell's stretch pass in stride and broke in alone on Wild goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, deking to the outside for an attempt that was stopped by a sprawling pad save. The puck, however, kicked up into the air and landed in the crease behind Bryzgalov, where Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews cruised by to tap it in for a 1-0 lead.
The goal didn't go down next to Hossa's name on the score sheet, but there was no doubt who was most responsible for it. It was the player who has won the Stanley Cup twice with the Blackhawks and covets a third at the age of 35.
Hossa has scored just two goals on 35 shots in Chicago's first eight games of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but his teammates would probably shrug their shoulders if asked about it. The reason is simple. Hossa is about more than just eye-popping goal totals now. He's truly a complete player, and relishes it.
"Early in my career, when I came to the National Hockey League, I was all about scoring goals and offense, offense, offense," said Hossa, who has scored 45 goals and has 76 assists in 160 career NHL playoff games. "I just learned over those years how to play both ends of the ice, and I just started enjoying it more. You know, maybe I gave up that offense. I wasn't cheating as much or I wasn't [doing] these offense things as much, because I enjoyed doing the other things probably more than just scoring goals."
He's talking about things like back checking.
There are only a handful of players in the NHL who can make people double-take while back checking to help thwart plays for the opponent in the neutral and defensive zones.
Detroit Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk is one of them. Toews is getting there. Hossa is right there with Datsyuk, who's commonly referred to as the "puck magician."
It's not an overstatement to say Hossa hounds the puck whenever he doesn't have it. He's become one of those "where'd he come from?" type of two-way forwards who can pickpocket the puck off an opposing stick, turn it into an offensive scoring opportunity, and make it all look smooth and effortless.
Chicago's defensemen, in particular, benefit most from Hossa's ability to defend. His presence on the ice provides a comfort factor that allows them to become more involved offensively. The fact Hossa plays next to Toews on the top line is almost unfair to the opposition, akin to having two more defensemen on the ice who also have great offensive skill.
"The one thing that I know from playing with him [since 2009-10] is I didn't realize how good defensively he was," Keith said. "I think you watch him back check, [and] there's nobody that back checks harder than him in the League. As a defenseman, you get a real good appreciation for a guy like that, who back checks that hard and blocks shots and does all those things and still is good offensively, and doesn't cheat for his offense. He plays the right way."
He plays the way all coaches wish their forwards would if they could.
"I've become that type of player, and I enjoy it," Hossa said. "If I don't score goals, it's not a big deal. I try to help the team a different way."