The turning point for the Chicago Blackhawks in last year's Stanley Cup Final came when head coach Joel Quenneville finally reunited superstars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews on the top line for Game 4 with his team trailing 2-1 in the series.
"I like that line. Big picture getting reunited, they seem to have some chemistry," said Quenneville when describing Kane and Toews leading Chicago to a crucial Game 4 victory over the Boston Bruins.
"It's a nice combination."
As the Blackhawks prepare to defend their Stanley Cup title, a mission that hasn't been successfully completed by any team since 1997-98, figuring out which lines will develop the best chemistry is one of the priorities for Quenneville and his staff this preseason.
But in regard to the first line, the decision should be quite simple.
Toews and Kane must play together for the entire season, and unless injuries hurt the team's forward depth, there's no reason to ever break them up.
They are the most difficult duo in the league to stop, as evidenced in the Cup Final, when Boston's shutdown pairing of Dennis Seidenberg and the league's top defenseman Zdeno Chara were unable to prevent Toews and Kane from taking over the series starting with Game 4.
|Player||Games 1-3||Games 4-6|
|Kane||0G, 1A||3G, 1A|
|Toews||0G, 0A||2G, 3A|
|Total||0G, 1A||5G, 4A|
If the Blackhawks' dynamic duo played on the same line to start the series, it may not have lasted six games, given Toews and Kane's success after Game 3, which resulted in the 24-year-old winger taking home the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
Kane's creativity with the puck, ability to skate through traffic, speed and goal-scoring ability makes him a nightmare for opposing teams to defend.
As someone with extraordinary offensive talent, the best way to maximize Kane's production is to pair him with a center who has the vision, playmaking ability and hockey IQ needed to create high-quality chances on just about every shift.
The ideal center is Toews.
The captain is Chicago's best playmaker, and we have already seen over the last five years that his chemistry with Kane is fantastic. Putting Kane one the second line, which could be centered by a rookie with no NHL experience like Brandon Pirri, would be wasting Kane's talents.
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When you look at the league's best goal-scoring wingers, including James Neal, Alexander Ovechkin, Corey Perry, Daniel Sedin and Rick Nash, the common theme among all of them is the presence of an elite center on their line.
"I think Kane and I have played together over so many years now, and I think whenever we get the chance to get back together, we complement each other because we play very different games," Toews said during last year's Cup Final. "But we do a lot of good little things out there to help each other out."
Kane is the type of winger that wants the puck on his stick as much as possible. Not only is he a great goal scorer, but his playmaking ability allows him to create as many scoring chances each game as some of the top centers.
Toews does a wonderful job of giving Kane the puck in the neutral zone so he can attack opposing defensemen with speed as he crosses the blue line. Once in the attacking zone, Toews supports Kane very well, like all smart centers should.
Quenneville has broken up the Toews-Kane duo many times in the past, but on almost every one of those occasions he's ended up reuniting them, because it's obvious that the team is much more successful when these stars are on the top line.
When the veteran coach put Toews and Kane together in last year's second-round series against the Detroit Red Wings, Chicago overcame a 3-1 deficit for the first time in franchise history. In the clinching Game 5 of the Western Conference Final versus the Los Angeles Kings, this duo combined for five points.
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When the Blackhawks were facing a 2-1 deficit in the Cup Final and a must-win Game 4 on the road, Toews and Kane were reunited and combined for nine points over the next three games, all of which were wins.
Chicago enters next season with a tremendous chance to repeat as Stanley Cup champions, and two of the reasons why are the great depth and talent that the team has offensively.
Toews and Kane form the most unstoppable forward duo in the NHL. They excel in all three zones and produce consistently when the stakes are highest.
Putting them on the same line should never be a "safe option" for Quenneville like it has been in the past. This should be a normal part of the Blackhawks' game plan for the 2013-14 season.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL columnist at Bleacher Report. He was a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final, the 2012 NHL playoffs and the 2013 NHL draft. All quotes obtained firsthand.