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Michal Handzus realizes this might be his last shot at the Stanley Cup

Updated: June 5, 2013 12:19AM

LOS ANGELES — It was nine springs ago that Michal Handzus — a young Michal Handzus — skated off the ice in Tampa Bay following his Philadelphia Flyers’ crushing 2-1 Game 7 loss in the 2004 Eastern Conference final. It hurt, sure. But young guys heal quickly — physically and mentally. After all, Handzus was just 27, a 20-goal-scorer in his prime, a career of opportunities still in front of him.

“You lose Game 7, you’re thinking you’ll get there again and you’ll win it,” Handzus said. “Then it’s maybe nine, 10 years later and you’re in the same spot. In 10 years, you realize you’re not going to be there. You realize it might be one of your last chances.”

A little more than two months ago, Handzus was a castaway in San Jose, a healthy scratch night after night, a washed-up 36-year-old whose best days were behind him. On Tuesday night at Staples Center, Handzus was a top-six forward on a five-game point streak for the league’s top team, centering Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane in Game 3 of the Western Conference final — the 14-year pro’s first Stanley Cup Final tantalizingly close.

Handzus is grateful to have such an opportunity so late in his career. He’s also driven by it, knowing it very well might be his last.

“He’s a guy that clearly wants to win at this stage in his career,” said Sharp, who was a rookie on that 2003-04 Flyers team. “He’s been on a lot of good teams. You can tell he really has that passion to get it done this year.”

When Handzus was dealt to the Hawks shortly before the trade deadline on April 1, the veteran center said he had other options, but chose Chicago. Part of his reasoning was he was familiar with the organization, having played eight games for the Hawks in 2006-07 before suffering a season-ending ACL tear and leaving for Los Angeles in the offseason.

His other reason? He wanted to be part of a winner. Any part.

“When you [make] those decisions, you don’t know how it’s going to end up,” Handzus said. “They had a great team. The thing was, I wasn’t sure where I was going to fit in. … You don’t know how it’s going to end up. You don’t envision you’re going to play [in the] conference finals, anything like that. You try to make the decision that you’re comfortable with, then just come in and try to help.”

He started as a fourth-line center, a faceoff and penalty-killing specialist. But Dave Bolland’s groin injury late in the season opened a spot on the second line, and Hawks coach Joel Quenneville gave Handzus a crack at it. Suddenly, Handzus was revitalized. After having just one goal and one assist — both against the Hawks on Feb. 5 — in 28 games with the Sharks, Handzus had a goal and four assists in his last five games of the regular season, and has two goals and six assists in the playoffs.

“It was basically an experiment we tried that immediately clicked,” Quenneville said.

On top of his surprising production, Handzus has emerged as a quiet leader in the dressing room. Andrew Shaw, for example, credited him with teaching him to “eat a punch instead of giving one.” He’s also been one of the veterans to make his voice heard during a grueling Detroit series that tested the Hawks’ will and resilience.

Handzus has been here before. And doesn’t know if he’ll ever be here again. So he’s making the most of his second chance.

“Yeah, I want to win for sure,” he said. “But that goes for the whole team. Everyone is driven, we want to win. I don’t think I’m the only one.”

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