CHICAGO - Marian Hossa's debut with the Chicago Blackhawks six days ago was a hit, a two-goal performance in a rout of the Western Conference-leading San Jose Sharks.
Hossa and his teammates cooled off a bit in the final two games of a gruelling six-game, 11-day road trip. The Blackhawks had an eight-game winning streak halted, shut out by Anaheim and losing in a shootout to Los Angeles.
Even so, the Blackhawks are the buzz of Chicago with the Bulls off to a slow start and the Bears in a nosedive. The Blackhawks are 16-6-3, including 4-1-1 on the road swing, and Hossa has finally made his debut in a city clamouring for a champion.
"We're talking already the Stanley Cup and it's only November," Hossa said in response to a question Monday. "But we are going in the right direction. ...We have to go step-by-step. Use short steps and go from there."
Hossa said he's still learning the offence under coach Joel Quenneville and working himself into game shape after missing training camp, the exhibition season and most of the first two months following shoulder surgery in July.
His linemates for most of his first three games were the young faces and 21-year-old stars of the Blackhawks, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
The trio, pictured together in front of the team's media guide, won't be on the same line Tuesday night when the Blackhawks meet Columbus and open up a stretch in which they play 8 of 10 games at home. Kane was moved to a line with Dustin Byfuglien and Kris Versteeg, while Patrick Sharp will team with Toews and Hossa.
It's a move to get the offence going after scoring just one goal against Anaheim and Los Angeles, balance out the lines and allow Kane to go back to his more comfortable right wing spot. And, of course, Quenneville could change it back.
"It was fun while it lasted," said Kane, who had moved to the left side with Hossa on the right. "We had some good shifts."
Hossa had 40 goals last year with the Red Wings, but his arrival came after the Blackhawks dumped Martin Havlat, raising expectations.
Team captain Toews said he was surprised Hossa was so good right after coming back.
"I couldn't have imagined he was going to be playing this well only three games back, when you are out for several months to start the season like that," Toews said.
"We're still feeling each other out that way, just getting to know each other. He's got a long reach and you don't have to give him the perfect pass. He's going to get his stick on the puck and he's got a great shot."
Despite their stretch of winning hockey and the nine points garnered on the road trip, the Blackhawks were quick to point out Monday that their lead in the Central Division is not that large with Nashville, Detroit and Columbus all relatively close.
But home has been a big plus all season. The Blackhawks are 10-2 at the United Center, with a roaring crowd that Hossa remembers as one of the loudest in the NHL, especially last spring when he played against the Blackhawks in the conference finals with Detroit.
Quenneville acknowledged that the first game back home after a long road trip is often a tricky one. If the Blackhawks need an extra push in their first meeting with Columbus this season, it's the opportunity to get Quenneville his 500th career coaching win.
Quenneville, who also has coached the Blues and Avalanche, took over after four games last season when Denis Savard was fired, and led the Blackhawks to the Western Conference finals.
"He's pretty much turned the team around. He's done a lot of good things," Kane said.
Quenneville attributed his victory total in part to simple longevity.
"I've been around for a while. It's been a fun situation to be part of where we're at right now," Quenneville said. "I've been in some real good spots and real good teams. ... I'm just worried about winning the next one. It would be a nice number."