DETROIT -- Marian Hossa has been as diplomatic and even as evasive as possible about this close-to-home rematch, but now the full force of reality is staring him in the face.
It was a year ago that he was playing on Sidney Crosby's wing when the Penguins were eliminated by the Detroit Red Wings in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final. Hossa was left to sit on the Mellon Arena ice, his back against the boards, his expression an unmistakable mix of dejection, fatigue and utter disappointment.
Tomorrow night, Detroit comes to Mellon Arena in the same situation -- Game 6, a chance to lift the Cup with a win. This time, Hossa is playing for the Red Wings after turning down lucrative offers from the Penguins last summer and signing a one-year, $7.45 million free-agent contract with Detroit.
"You know, in some ways it's probably as difficult a situation for him as it could have been," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said yesterday. "There could have been a lot of other teams we'd be playing and it would have been easier and we wouldn't be talking about this stuff."
But it is not a different opponent, so the consequences of Hossa's career choice last year will be magnified when this final is decided.
If the Penguins lose tomorrow night or Friday in Game 7, there will be validation. If the Red Wings lose the next two games, Hossa will be in the same spot he was a year ago -- watching another team skating with the Cup on his home ice -- and the room for second-guessing will be vast.
Hossa hasn't said a lot since this matchup was determined about his decision to give up tens of millions of dollars to walk away from Crosby and the Penguins and sign with the team he said last summer he thought had the best chance of winning the Cup this season. It would be his first Stanley Cup.
He has not directly addressed whatever emotions have been stirred by this rematch.
Hossa has played three games at Mellon Arena since switching sides. He had a goal in a 3-0 Red Wings regular-season win Feb. 8 and no points in Games 3 and 4 last week -- both 4-2 Penguins wins.
Each time, the crowds booed Hossa when he touched the puck.
"I was expecting pretty much how it was in Pittsburgh," he said.
Asked about any moments -- awkward or otherwise -- he might have shared with his former teammates, Hossa said, "I think the players are focusing on the game. They try to play physical -- not just on me, but on the whole team. I don't pay attention to that."
Hossa wasn't with the Penguins long -- he ended up being a rent-a-star obtained from Atlanta at the February 2008 trade deadline -- but many of the Penguins' main characters in this year's final are the same men who bonded last year through the club's first long playoff stretch in years.
And who shared the pain of coming so agonizingly close to a championship.
"It can't be easy," Red Wings winger Dan Cleary said of Hossa's situation in Game 6. "But when you're an elite player, there is always pressure on you to perform. That's what makes players elite, their ability to handle that, play through it.
"The hockey gods kind of smiled on everybody when this [rematch] all happened, but he's handled it well. It's not easy to go into Pittsburgh and play against your old team. He's got good friends there."
Hossa is coming off perhaps his best game of the series. He had an assist and a game-high eight hits in Game 5 Saturday as Detroit smashed the Penguins, 5-0, to uphold the pattern of the home team winning each game.
"I thought he was excellent," Babcock said. "He was big and physical."
Hossa had 12 goals, 26 points in 20 games in the Penguins' postseason run a year ago. He has not been as productive this spring, with six goals, 15 points in 21 games. He has no goals, three assists in the five games in the final. In the regular season, he led the Red Wings with 40 goals and was third with 71 points.
"There is always pressure," Hossa said of scoring, "but you can't be too worried about it and start thinking and questioning. You just have to play and use your instincts like you did the whole year.
"I know I have to step up offensively and get something going, get a lucky one and, hopefully, continue from there."
Even if that comes at the expense of friends.
"He's a man. He made a decision," Babcock said. "I think he's really pleased with his decision.
"I'm a big believer in life, that when you make a decision, it's a good one, because you made it. You thought about it, and you made the decision, now you live with it and you enjoy it. And I think that's what he's doing."
Shelly Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1721. First Published June 8, 2009 4:00 AM