PITTSBURGH (AP) - Back in February, the Stanley Cup finals were no more than a pipe dream for a trio of thrilled Pittsburgh Penguins.
Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis toiled in Atlanta, and Hal Gill endured long days while mired in the mess the Toronto Maple Leafs' season had become. Less than four months later, it is though they were born to wear the black and gold.
"It's funny how your loyalties change when you're in battle with a team," Gill said Wednesday, a few hours before Game 6 against the Detroit Red Wings. "It doesn't take long, a few games before you get that feeling that you're part of this team.
"I was traded a long time ago. It feels like it was three years ago."
Hossa, an impending unrestricted free agent, knew his days with the Thrashers were numbered. Disappointed in the direction of the also-ran club that had won the Southeast Division a year ago, Hossa didn't enter into serious negotiations with Atlanta and wrote his ticket out of town.
Dupuis was included in the deal that cost the Penguins a pair of talented young forwards, Erik Christensen and Colby Armstrong. Although Hossa is a proven goal scorer and just the kind of finisher Pittsburgh wanted on a line with playmaking captain Sidney Crosby, there was no assurances such a move would work out.
"As I said the day of the trade, it is up to the players in here to really be accepting of these players because we are losing two big guys," Penguins general manager Ray Shero said. "The three guys that we got, certainly their character and personalities really fit this team. It really worked well for everybody."
Hossa came with a reputation of disappearing come playoff time, and this was clearly a trade to go for the Cup now. With the Penguins needing to sign rising stars such as Evgeni Malkin and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, there might not be money available under the salary cap to bring back Hossa.
For the Penguins to get this far so fast in Crosby's third season and Malkin's second, it's hard to argue the trade wasn't worth it even if Hossa is merely a short-term fix.
"If you go far in the playoffs and you play as many games as we did right now in the playoffs, and you play in the Stanley Cup finals, you're a part of the team," said Dupuis, also approaching free agency. "It's a special group of guys. Hoss and I, they welcomed us like we've been here all year."
Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin had a chance to get out of the Toronto fishbowl and move to a team that could give him his first Stanley Cup ring. Instead, he invoked the no-trade clause in his contract and decided to stay put where he spent 13 NHL seasons.
"The decision that I made was very personal, the right decision for myself," Sundin said. "I know there's been a lot of players going to different teams at the deadline, and won Stanley Cups as kind of a rental player. I personally don't believe in that."
Sundin has become such a part of the fabric in the Toronto hockey community that he had no interest in jumping ship, especially after not being able to deliver a championship to a city yearning for one since 1967.
To go somewhere else and ride another team's coattails to a title didn't seem as though it could ever be the same.
"Mats has had some quality years in Toronto. Although never winning a Cup, he's been a major part of that team and city for a long time," said Penguins forward Gary Roberts, a teammate of Sundin's for four seasons. "You understand why he wanted to stay there. I kind of moved around a little bit, so it was easy for me to make that decision.
"When I got here last year, I think about how I was supported by my teammates and how easy they made it for me to come in here and play and be part of this thing."
Roberts came to Pittsburgh after rumors had the now 42-year-old, hard-hitting forward heading to the Ottawa Senators, the team that reached the finals in 2007. He gave his permission to be traded after parts of two seasons with the noncontending Florida Panthers.
"We didn't have a lot of success and didn't have a lot of fun," he said. "To have an opportunity to come to a team like Pittsburgh and get a chance to win a Cup, obviously I was thrilled for the opportunity."
So much so, he re-signed with the Penguins for this season. He probably could've gone to Ottawa then, but after getting knocked out of the playoffs by the Senators in the first round last year, he no longer considered them an option.
Now he views the February arrivals the same way he does the rest of his teammates.
"When you look back on this in years to come, you won't look at those guys as not being a big part of the hockey club," Roberts said. "They're a huge part of the team. That's hockey. You make acquisitions at certain times of the year to try and help your team win. We made some that have put us in a pretty good position."
On the other side of the finals, defenseman Brad Stuart fell into a good situation, too. He was rescued on trade deadline day by the Red Wings, the Presidents' Trophy winners who acquired him from the Los Angeles Kings - the last-place team in the Western Conference.
Stuart was needed by the Red Wings, who were missing injured Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Niklas Kronwall and Chris Chelios at the time. It was the second straight year Stuart joined a new team at the deadline, but the first in which it paid dividends.
Stuart was shipped from Boston to Calgary in 2007 and didn't get out of the first round of the playoffs. He signed with Los Angeles in the offseason and is set to be a free agent again this summer.
"Once the playoffs started, I was as much a Red Wing as anything I had been before," Stuart said. "It was one of those things where if you do it and you succeed, it looks good. If you do it and it doesn't work, it looks terrible no matter how the guy played. It's part of the game."
Detroit didn't have to impact the roster to acquire Stuart, instead giving up a second-round pick in this year's draft and a fourth-round choice in 2009.
Entering Game 6, Stuart had a goal, six assists and had a plus-13 rating in 20 postseason contests. He had points in five straight games before being blanked in Detroit's 4-3 triple overtime loss to Pittsburgh on Monday.
"We looked at it as almost having a luxury problem where we had too many bodies that could play," Lidstrom said. "We have our bumps and bruises throughout the long playoff run and it really helps having the depth.
"It probably took him a couple of weeks to get used to our system and the way we were playing. Right now it seems like he's been here for years."