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That is a lot of road traveled between Michal Rozsival and Michal Handzus, and yet only now do their respective journeys converge at the edge of a championship.
What makes the moment even more poignant for Rozsival, 34, a Czech from Vlasim, and Handzus, 36, a Slovak from Banska Bystrica, is that both came to the Chicago Blackhawks with modest expectations. Frankly, it would have surprised no one if neither was a factor at all in the Blackhawks' run to their second Stanley Cup finals since 2010.
And yet, nothing could be further from the truth.
Handzus, acquired for a second time in his career by Chicago at the trade deadline, has used his big frame and faceoff skills to move up in the latter stages of the Western Conference finals to the second line, playing with Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp.
"I would describe it as fun," Handzus said Tuesday. "You want to play on the top level, and you want to help the team and you want to feel that you're helping the team."
He has two goals and nine assists, not bad for a guy who was cast off by the San Jose Sharks at the deadline and who figured to play mostly a fringe role.
"Right now, I don't really look at it in my success or that I feel good because I'm playing well," Handzus said. "I feel good because we're winning and we're in the finals.
"It's not about individuals. It's about the team. Obviously, if I play well and I help the team scoring goals and everything, I'll be happy."
Handzus was a member of a Philadelphia Flyers team that advanced to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004. The Lightning went on to defeat Calgary in seven games to win the Stanley Cup, while Handzus had not been beyond the first round of the playoffs since that time.
That passage of time and the vagaries of the NHL playoffs are not lost on him.
"I wanted to win when I was 22; I want to win when I'm 36," he said. "Yeah, you start thinking, right now, it might be your last chance. I'm not denying that.
|Not long ago, Michal Handzus was a member of the San Jose Sharks.|
"But when I was in conference finals and I was 26 at that time [and] we lost in Game 7, [I was] like: 'OK, I got a lot left. I can come back.' And obviously it's 10 years later and I'm back, and I finally won the conference finals.
"Like I said, it doesn't really matter if you lose first, second round or final -- you didn't win the Cup, and that's all that matters. So it doesn't really matter if I'm in the final right now. I just focus on the win."
Across the concourse, Handzus' teammate Rozsival is telling a similar story about coming to grips with the ethereal nature of winning and the passage of time.
Wherever he has signed, Rozsival said he has hoped good things would happen. Even when he was injured earlier in the season and then was a healthy scratch, the veteran defenseman insisted he was loving every minute of his time in Chicago.
"Every time I sign anywhere, I thought it," Rozsival said. "I was hoping to be in this spot that I am right now. But this year it was a little bit different.
"I enjoyed every moment of this season even though I wasn't playing every game. I really enjoyed being here."
As the playoffs began, coach Joel Quenneville entrusted Rozsival with a lineup spot every night. He has rewarded Quenneville's faith with a solid 18:30 in ice time per game and was a plus-6.
"I played some games; I've been in some playoff games," he said. "I'm hoping I'm doing a good enough job for them to put me out there. Give me the trust to put me in any situation on the ice. That's all I'm trying to do."
Every year there is a player for whom a Stanley Cup win would represent the culmination of a long-denied championship dream. Those are players for whom their teammates, especially those who understand the unrivaled joy of a Stanley Cup win, want to experience similar highs.
In 2010, it was about trying to get Hossa over the finish line after failing in the finals with Pittsburgh in 2008 and with Detroit in 2009.
"It was nice to do that for him," defenseman Brent Seabrook said. "Being here this year with the guys we have on our team -- and I think you look at Jamal Mayers and Michal Rozsival and Zeus [Handzus] -- you know it's big to try and be a part of helping them get to their goal. They've played a lot of games in this league and haven't been able to be here, so it's nice."
For many like Handzus and Rozsival, it's hard to put what it would mean into words.
"It would be huge if we can win that one," Rozsival said. "I've been waiting for this opportunity for a long time. A lot of years, lot of sweat, lot of blood. So it would be nice to win one. It's the trophy you dream about growing up as a player, as a hockey player.
"It's important, but I guess I don't want to think too far ahead. I just want to kind of focus on what's going on tomorrow and just take it day by day.
"[I'm] trying to block it out, to tell the truth. I don't even want to talk about it. Obviously, there is different feelings running through my body. [I'm] trying to block some thoughts about what could happen and what might happen, but at the end of the day you just have to go out there and give your best. Could be my last shot at it."
Still, the veteran defender who got a taste of what it means to go on a long playoff run with Phoenix last year when the Coyotes advanced to their first Western Conference finals admits he's not sure what it will be like to step on the ice for warm-ups before Game 1 on Wednesday night.
"I played a lot of games, but I never played a game like that," Rozsival said. "It might be the case [that I'm nervous], but hopefully it's not going to be for too long."