CHICAGO -- Like most players, Marian Hossa was powerless to stop what happened late in the first period of a game at United Center on Wednesday.
Detroit Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk, a relentless puck hound, used a jabbing stick-lift to rip the puck from the Chicago Blackhawks forward in the defensive zone. Datsyuk quickly headed the other way, looking for the kind of play he's turned into a goal numerous times in his career.
Hossa had other ideas, and unlike most players, he was able to recover.
Chicago Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa, at 36, continues to prove himself as one of the best two-way players in the game. (Photo: Getty Images)
Just as he did during practices with the Red Wings in 2007-08, Hossa chased Datsyuk. He closed the gap through the neutral zone and caught the speedy Russian at the Chicago blue line. Hossa, a 36-year old right wing, returned the favor with a strip of his own inside the left circle, sending the puck the other way with a stretch pass.
The crowd roared. Hossa felt a sense of relief and accomplishment.
"He's one of the best," he said of Datsyuk, a three-time winner of the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the NHL's best defensive forward. "I had the chance to play with [him] in Detroit and we'd play keep-aways after practices, because he's one of the best in the League. I learned from him quite a bit."
The next opportunity Hossa gets to apply that knowledge will be at United Center on Sunday against the Boston Bruins (3:30 p.m. ET; NBC). It came in handy against Datsyuk.
"When we're matching lines and we're playing against each other, I know in the back of my head, 'He's somewhere behind me,'" Hossa said. "When he stole the puck, I knew I had to get it back from him."
It didn't lead to a goal, or even a scoring chance, but that sequence was classic Hossa and classic Datsyuk. Packaged into a 10-second window of an exciting game between old rivals, it was one of the highlights.
Twitter timelines instantly spun with activity. People buzzed about it after the game, including two good friends who stood in the hallway outside the locker rooms and shared some laughs about it.
"It was a great feeling, because to strip it from him is not easy," Hossa said. "That's fun for me, the challenge. I just enjoy it so much."
Each year that passes, the challenge grows more difficult.
Hossa's days of scoring 40 goals a season and rolling out of bed each day pain-free are gone. Eighteen seasons of NHL hockey have taken a toll on Hossa, who has 481 goals and 1,038 points in 1,149 regular-season games. His body requires more stretching now, more care prior to practices and games. It takes him a little longer to feel right when he wakes up.
All that aside, though, he remains one of the League's best two-way players. Along with defensive plays like the one against Datsyuk, a recent four-game goal streak was a reminder. He had three consecutive two-goal games, the first time he done that in the NHL, and six of his seven goals were in the third periods of close games.
Five helped the Blackhawks send games to overtime, for at least a point, and one was scored into an empty net at the St. Louis Blues. More impressive was his efficiency.
Hossa needed 13 shots to take his season total for goals from 10 to 17 and increase his shooting percentage more than 4 points, a huge increase past the midway point of the season. He hasn't scored in the past two games, but the threat is present.
"He's a guy you can watch every night and learn something new," said Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane, whose 63 points are among the NHL's best. "He's a fun guy to watch. Just the way he plays both ways, both ends of the rink, is a good thing for our team. It shows if he's doing it, whether it's at that age or the amount of success he's had in his career, he still wants to do it and he's still very good at it. It shows us all that we can be doing that as well. He's a fun player to watch, especially when he's feeling it."
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Hossa's been feeling it lately, particularly in his skating. During the past couple weeks, his top gear has returned full force. Ask for a reason, and he's not exactly sure. Ask teammate Kris Versteeg and you get one of those bug-eyed looks, followed by a question.
"Have you seen him with his shirt off?" Versteeg asked reporters recently. "He's got the body of a Greek god."
So maybe it's the constant work Hossa logs in the weight room, especially for his legs. Or maybe it's the new skates he received midway through his scoring streak. Maybe it's one of those peaks during a long career.
Whatever the reason, his power stride is back.
"He's an elite, elite skater and always has been," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said, doubling down on his chosen adjective. "I think guys like [Hossa] can play way longer, because they're such great skaters. He glides effortless. He's a worker, he's a big man, he doesn't get dinged a whole bunch. It's hard to make contact with him. I mean, he's a guy who can play a long time."
That's good news for the Blackhawks. Hossa has six years left on a 12-year contract he signed as a free agent in July 2009, prior to the current Collective Bargaining Agreement that prevents such lengthy arrangements. Hossa will be 42 when it expires.
Is playing until then physically possible for a two-way power forward like him, a guy with a list of injuries that seems to grow after each Stanley Cup Playoff run?
"I know I signed a long-term contract, and obviously people think I'm getting old, you know … 'There's no way,' but I go year-by-year," Hossa said. "Maybe they're going to be right and maybe not. It all depends on two things. If I'm healthy and I've still got my game on, I would love to play as long as possible. If not, then maybe I'll say, 'OK, if I cannot keep up with the young guys, then it's time for me to go.'"
"Maybe [an] injury is going to stop me," he said. "It's tough to say. But if everything goes right, I would like to play."