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SportsMonday: Keeping Hossa Healthy

So do we think Marian Hossa was really injured or did the savvy Hawks perhaps say, um, Mr. NHL veteran superstar who almost certainly is the difference between us contending for another Cup or us bowing out of the playoffs early, perhaps you should take a break?

You've had a sizable workload this season (three-quarters of the schedule and the Olympics) and we don't want you to overdo it?

Hossa missed the five games leading up to Sunday night's 4-1 victory over the Red Wings at the United Center. At the start of his absence, I saw one local report that included the words "shoulder injury" but after that the usual wall of silence descended between Hossa's health and the public.

Let's take a moment here to say that if NHL teams are going to hide the specifics of their players' injuries, in part to protect them from delightful foes who have been known to target vulnerable limbs for special abuse late in the season and in the postseason, let's all just say the player is injured. It is time to retire the unhelpful (and probably oftentimes false) phrases: "upper body injury" and "lower body injury."

An overlooked highlight of said Olympics for Blackhawks fans was when Slovakia lost its first elimination round match 5-3 to the Czech Republic. It wasn't that the fans had a rooting interest; it was that the fans were pulling for Slovakia to wrap up the tournament with a still-healthy Hossa. Mission accomplished, we think - unless Hossa suffered his injury there but then concealed it until after he returned to the Hawks.

Anyway, this "taking a break" thing makes a ton of sense for various Hawks. Any little injury to a Hawk stalwart at this point means that player sits out at least a few extra days, especially if he played in the Olympics. Guys like Duncan Keith or Jonathan Toews or even Niklas Hjalmarsson, i.e., guys who played in Russia until the very end (Keith and Toews' Canadian team knocked off Hjalmarsson's Swedes in the final), should almost certainly get some sort of break before the playoffs.

Unless the team's playoff chances are imperiled, that is. Of course the Hawks are going to make the playoffs - they are a dozen points ahead of the seventh-place Minnesota Wild (80) heading into this evening's action, let alone eighth-place Dallas (75). Eight teams from each conference advance.

But they are one point behind the Avalanche. And they have to be playing to at least finish ahead of Colorado, the team that projects as their first-round playoff foe. This year, teams that finish second and third in their divisions stay in the divisions for first-round match-ups no matter what. First seeds might face wild cards from the other division in their conference in the first round.

So barring a big Hawk win streak or a Blues (99 points for first in the Central Division ahead of Colorado and then the Hawks) run of setbacks, the home team will face the Avalanche to start the postseason. And the Hawks will compete with them for home ice advantage for the last dozen or so games of the regular season.

And if anyone doubted Hossa's importance to the Hawks as the season winds down, they could break down video of the Hawks' last two games - the win over the Wings and a home 3-2 loss to the mediocre Nashville Predators two days prior.

Now you don't want to make too much of the Wings win. Detroit was missing about a half dozen of their best players due to injuries, from Henrik Zetterberg to Pavel Datsyuk to Todd Bertuzzi. Still, without Hossa, the Hawks played what coach Joel Quenneville called their "worst game of the season" against the Preds. They then bounced back to pull away from the Wings on Sunday with Hossa asserting himself more and more as the game went on. He eventually scored the critical goal that made it 3-1 early in the third period and also notched a pair of assists.

In the bigger picture, the Hawks may be competing with the Avalanche for playoff positioning but they are also still playing it cool. I loved the fact that heading into their game with Colorado earlier last week (a 3-2 loss), the defending champs made a delightful little statement right off the bat that the game actually meant very little; they chose to start little-used backup Ante Raanta in goal.

The Hawks will strive to finish ahead of the 'lanche in the standings as they finish the season strong. But they know that the most important thing is bringing a healthy team into the playoffs. The regular season record between the teams (the Hawks also lost to Colorado on March 4) won't matter at all when the puck drops on the playoffs in four short weeks.

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Jim "Coach" Coffman is our man on Mondays. He welcomes your comments.

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