There are a lot of wonderful players on both sides of the first-round NHL playoff series between the St. Louis Blues and the Chicago Blackhawks, players who play the game “the right way," taking care of their own end first but also capable of magic in the offensive zone.
And, perhaps for the sake of contrast, there’s Patrick Kane.
Kane’s a wonderful player too, one of the NHL’s true offensive magicians, but defensively he’s something like Hans Christian Andersen’s ugly duckling among players like Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp.
Take for example this excerpt of a profile from the 2012-13 edition of McKeen’s Hockey and try to imagine applying it to any of that trio (or, for that matter, to Alexander Steen or David Backes):
[T]ends to be a spectator defensively when the intensity isn’t full throttle .. guilty of careless puck management last season – a byproduct of trying to do too much .. increasingly targeted for special physical attention as opponents learn to test his courage .. further muddied his off-ice image with more ‘party’ pix.
That excerpt came after Kane's particularly bad 66-point 2011-12 campaign, but even in a down year it’s hard to imagine Toews being described as a “spectator defensively" or opponents learning to test the courage of Backes.
But as much as Kane isn’t the kind of archetypal two-way forward that makes up such a high percentage of the rosters of both teams, he has an offensive gear that nobody else on the ice in this series can match. On Wednesday night in Game 4 he found it, scoring twice and adding an assist in a desperately needed overtime win for Chicago.
It’s the kind of brilliance that a player like Kane can add to what might be the most competitive series in the league right now. Each side has won two games, and (disregarding the empty-netter in Game 3) all four contests have been decided by a single goal. Against such a backdrop, Kane’s scoring touch stands out and may well prove to be the difference over the best-of-three that now lies ahead.
"He's a dangerous player," said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, according to The Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com). "He's dangerous off the rush. The most dangerous player in the league."
It hasn’t been an easy run for Kane, who had spent nearly a month on the shelf with a leg injury before returning for Game 1 against St. Louis. His use of a knee brace has been mentioned repeatedly by the commentators covering the series, and it’s hard to imagine there wasn’t some adjustment, especially for a player for whom explosive skating is a major asset.
After picking up just one point in the first three games of the series, he looked to have found his old magic in Game 4. He was credited with just a secondary assist on Chicago’s first goal, but was the primary driver of the play (though Toews knocking the stick from Alex Pietrangelo’s hands was also critical). On the Blackhawks’ second marker, Kane’s speed was on full display as he sprinted down the wing and past Blues T.J. Oshie and Jay Bouwmeester.
Kane’s overtime winner was lovely in its own way, as he waited for the chaos and distraction of two of his teammates driving the St. Louis net off the rush before unleashing a shot that caught Blues’ goaltender Ryan Miller just starting to lean away from the post and toward the center of the ice.
It was, without question, Kane’s best game of the series, the first time his flair for producing offense tipped the scales in favor of the Blackhawks.
Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville has done everything he can to make Kane productive, at times putting him alongside Toews to overwhelm the opposition, at other times splitting the two to elude Hitchcock’s preferred matchup. He’s also tilted the ice in Kane’s favour, starting more than half of the forward’s shifts in the offensive zone (in contrast, Toews starts just over one-third of his shifts there).
The logic is clear: Put the team’s most dynamic offensive weapon in a position to generate offense. Kane started producing in Game 4, and as a result the ‘Hawks go back to St. Louis tied 2-2 rather than down 3-1; if he can keep it up there’s a very good chance Chicago will win this series. Kane’s been the difference in plenty of playoff series in the past, and he has a Conn Smythe Trophy and a near point-per-game playoff record to prove it.
St. Louis has to find a way to keep Kane under wraps. Hitchcock is an exceptional coach, and he has at his disposal a deep and talented defense corps and an array of two-way forwards to check the ‘Hawks. He’s also set to regain home-ice advantage, with which he takes back primary control over the matchups with the final line change.
But although few opponents stand as good a chance as St. Louis of shutting Kane down, the simple fact of the matter is that he’s an offensive dynamo without peer on these two teams, and he’s being employed by a brilliant Chicago coach determined to put him in situations where he can turn that offensive talent into goals.
If this most recent outing is at all a sign of things to come, Chicago may have just gained a pivotal advantage.