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Hossa and Gill fitting in with Penguins in race for top seed in Eastern Conference @NHLdotcom

When news broke that Marian Hossa was headed to the Pittsburgh Penguins, visions of the All-Star forward teaming with reigning MVP Sidney Crosby flooded the minds of hockey watchers, and put fear into teams faced with defending them.

Injuries to Crosby's ankle and Hossa's knee prevented the two from being on the ice in the same game until Thursday. Now that they are together, and the Penguins are in prime contention for the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, it will soon be known if the blockbuster deal pays off.

In stunning quickness in the final hour before the Feb. 26 NHL trade deadline, the Penguins acquired soon-to-be free agent forward Hossa and Pascal Dupuis from the also-ran Atlanta Thrashers for top forwards Colby Armstrong and Erik Christensen, 2007 first-round draft pick Angelo Esposito, and a future first-round draft pick.

Moments before that move, Pittsburgh landed hulking defenseman Hal Gill from the languishing Maple Leafs.

You can never argue with bringing in impact players, but doing it on an already successful team, while removing key pieces, could upset an otherwise cohesive dressing room.

"You're always concerned about chemistry," Penguins general manager Ray Shero said. "We are a close-knit team, and it was difficult trading the two guys off of our team in the Hossa deal. We thought long and hard about that. But being able to add a Marian Hossa to our group ... we thought that was worth the risk and the reward might be worth it.

"We are a month later, and I think the team has jelled pretty well with the new additions."

Hossa and Gill went through some adjustments, but said they have been received well and are excited to have been dropped into a legitimate run for the Stanley Cup instead of playing out the string with their former teams.

"You can feel the buzz in the dressing room and around the city. That gives you an extra buzz, too," Hossa said. "I just try to get out there and don't think about these outside things. I just try to play the game and have fun and help the team - what I do best.

"Definitely right now I feel like I've been here for a long, long time. The guys welcomed me really nice. There is a good group of guys inside and I just feel comfortable here."

Gill echoed those sentiments as he dished out and absorbed some ribbing from his new teammates.

"For the first three or so games I had a hard time picking up the system and adjusting where I needed to," he said. "I think that's normal, but I feel comfortable now. There's always more chemistry that needs to happen, but I think that's why they made the trade deadline the way it is so teams are ready to go by the time they get in the playoffs.

"It's something you don't want to mess with too much, and you don't want to change the chemistry of the team too much, but you want to try to add where you can and do what you can to help the team. It's a fine line that you walk."


A CHRISTMAS STORY: The Montreal Canadiens' surprise surge to the top of the Eastern Conference standings took root in a road trip around Christmas.

What a difference a year makes. It was a 1-3 skid on the road during the 2006 holiday season that sent the Canadiens on the road to missing the playoffs.

On a six-game trip this past late December, Montreal went 3-1-2 and started its rise in the Northeast Division.

"I think everybody was kind of nervous about that trip," coach Guy Carbonneau said. "Then once we came out of it doing really well, I thought that was a big thing."

The Canadiens were still nine points behind division-leading Ottawa when the calendar turned to January, but suddenly they were on the move.

"I really think that the biggest step for us was the trip," Carbonneau said. "Not because of the opponents that we had, but just because of what happened last year. I thought last year our team was really playing strong hockey. We were doing really well, and then the trip that we had starting just before Christmastime didn't go the way we wanted.

"Then from there it was really kind of a struggle right up until about three weeks from the end of the season where we couldn't catch our breath, couldn't catch anything."

Not only did the Canadiens catch their breath, they tracked down the spiraling Senators. Ottawa continued to slip, even firing coach John Paddock, while Montreal soared. The Canadiens moved into first place after games on Feb. 29, for the first time since opening night, and haven't looked back.

This was hardly expected after the disappointing campaign last season, Carbonneau's first as head coach.

"I knew at training camp with the team that we have, the additions that we've had, that we're going to be a better team," Carbonneau said. "I don't deny that I've taken a lot of pride in trying to prove people wrong, but I also knew that there were a few things that had to happen during the start of this year to make these things happen.

"We've been lucky. We haven't had that many injuries. Most of our players, their game has been constant. Our goaltenders have been solid. ... We haven't had a slump, so all of those things together, we kind of knew that we had a better team than what people thought."


FEELING BLUE (AND WHITE): For the 40th straight season, a team other than the Toronto Maple Leafs will hoist the Stanley Cup.

Each of the NHL's Original Six teams have at least reached the Stanley Cup finals since Toronto's last championship in 1967 - except for the languishing Leafs.

Their most recent demise came Thursday night with a loss at Boston that ensured Toronto wouldn't qualify for the playoffs for a third straight year. Not since 1926-28 had the Maple Leafs gone that long without reaching the postseason.

"Toronto is the hockey mecca," Bruins forward Glen Metropolit said. "The Maple Leaf symbol is known around the world and it is unfortunate what has happened."

But despair hasn't quite enveloped Toronto. There is even a sense of hope.

An all-sports station in the city established the "Million Dollar Cup Contest" as soon as the Maple Leafs' most recent elimination took place.

If the team captures the Cup next season, a member of the FAN 590 fan club will win a $1 million (Canadian) cash prize.

"Even I'd pay a million dollars to see Toronto win the Cup" said Nelson Millman, the general manager and program director of the station. "Like every other Toronto fan, we're upset by the team's elimination, but we're also excited about the prospects for 2009."

Entries are already being accepted. It's never too early to start next season.


REELING THEM IN: Boosted by playoff races that had 22 of the 30 teams within six points of a playoff berth heading into this weekend, the NHL is on pace to break attendance records for March.

During this month, games have been played in front of crowds averaging 17,900 fans - 97 percent of capacity. The previous record for March, set last season, was 17,331.

Overall this season, the average attendance for NHL games is 17,194 - which is a 5.5 percent increase over last season's 16,961. The league will surpass 20 million in total attendance for the seventh consecutive season and will, for the first time in its 90-season history, conclude the regular season with a per-game average above 17,000.

Over the final 10 days of the regular season, much is still to be decided in the standings.

With all but one league game being competed within the respective divisions, up for grabs are: the Presidents' Trophy (best overall record), the top seeds in both conferences, five of six division titles, and 11 of 16 playoff positions. No team is locked into a seeding yet.


COACHING QUINN: Former NHL coach Pat Quinn is hopping back behind the bench.

Quinn, 65, who has led Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Vancouver, and Toronto in the NHL, is making another international appearance as the coach of Canada's national team in the world under-18 championship next month in Russia.

This will mark Quinn's ninth appearance at an international event for Canada, his first since coaching the national team in the 2006 Spengler Cup. His greatest accomplishment for his home country came in 2002, when he guided Canada to the gold medal at the Salt Lake City Olympics.

Quinn has been out of the NHL since being dismissed by the Toronto Maple Leafs after the 2005-06 season.

"Any chance you get to be a part of Hockey Canada is very special, and this experience will be no different," Quinn said this week after his selection. "I have always enjoyed working with young players, and am excited to work with some of Canada's future stars."

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