Even before they faced off against each other in the Western Conference final, the Chicago Blackhawks' Marian Hossa and the San Jose Sharks' Dany Heatley were inextricably linked, thanks to that long-ago deal where the two traded places, Hossa going from Ottawa to Atlanta in the celebrated deal that was going to turn the Senators' franchise around.
Ottawa was changing its mix, adding a Canadian-born player, with all the attendant grit associated with the same. In exchange, they were giving one of the glut of talented Europeans that filled up their right side. The logic always escaped me because Hossa, in the clutch-and-grab era, was one of the few players who could actually carry a defenceman on his back, out of the corner. They call him Hoss for a reason.
But Heatley had value too - a pure sniper, great on that one-timer from the circle; and decent down low, picking up the garbage at the edge of the crease. Both eventually moved on and now they're here, stuck in mirror-image scoring slumps, but only one - Heatley - is getting any heat. That's a function of San Jose being down 3-0 in the series and facing elimination in Sunday's game.
Hossa, by contrast, is getting virtually a free pass, just because Chicago is winning. If the situations were reversed, so too would be the line of questioning.
It is something Sharks' captain Rob Blake understands only too well.
"Guys have to understand that your team will be critiqued on whether you're winning or losing," said Blake Saturday, following the Sharks' optional practice. "When you're losing, there are more fingers being pointed from the outside at individuals. It's always going to be that way - and if you're winning, it gets covered up.
"As a group, you tend not to read into it too much. We understand he's out there trying. Believe me, he's trying - he's trying to win, he's trying to score. Everybody is at this stage. As a captain, that's all I can ask of this team. Show up and be competitive. Sometimes it's going to go in and sometimes it's not. I thought we had that level of competition last game that we needed in the first two."
Blake is the man responsible for keeping Hossa's slump going on Friday night, by sliding in front of a second-period shot after Hossa had Sharks' goaltender Evgeni Nabokov down and out.
"Yeah, Blakey made a nice toe save on him," said Blackhawks' coach Joel Quenneville, with a smile. "And then he hit the post in the game prior to that. I think when you're that close, you're that close, eventually you're going to get one.
"Hopefully it's a breakout. Certainly I think his overall game is solid as you could ever want in a forward, in a player. But right now he's a little snake bitten around the net. I thought that was in, too."
Quenneville could afford to smile because the Blackhawks are one win away from qualifying for the final. For Hossa, it would mean his third Stanley Cup final appearance in three years with three different teams. He was on the losing side with the Pittsburgh Penguins two years ago; and with the Detroit Red Wings last year. When they came up short in the semis last year, the Blackhawks opted not to bring Martin Havlat back and showed Hossa the money instead (a 12-year deal in all, with six more seasons at a heavy $7.9-million per year).
Both Hossa and Heatley were prized and expensive off-season acquisitions - theoretically, the missing pieces in the respective Blackhawks and Sharks' puzzles. Hossa is a perennial point-per-game player who flat out isn't scoring right now. That the Blackhawks are winning anyway means there's far less pressure on him than there otherwise would be; and in fact, when Hossa doesn't score, he generally doesn't hurt you in other areas of the ice.
That is his saving grace - sometimes, snipers who aren't sniping start trying to do too much, and suddenly, leave gaps in their defensive coverage as well. With Hossa, that hasn't been the case. He is a responsible two-way player, something Quenneville stressed again and again. Quenneville calls his play "very effective" and saying that line, with Patrick Sharp and Troy Brouwer, "has been useful in a lot of ways."
"His responsibilities with the puck and without the puck really complement our team game," said Quenneville. "I know we always like to have everybody productive and scoring at a high rate. But he does so many things that are useful to us as a team, if he breaks out at any time, that would be a bonus, it would be great for us."
Quenneville can afford to be so supportive because of where his team stands in the series. Meanwhile, if Hossa ever starts to find the back of the net, maybe he can finally be on the winning side of the Stanley Cup for a change, instead of getting close again - and coming up short.