NEW YORK — Only the Chicago Blackhawks can lose the league's leading scorer and potential Hart Trophy winner and turn it into a positive.
Since Patrick Kane was sidelined for the remainder of the regular season with a broken collarbone on Feb. 22, the Blackhawks are 7-1-1, which includes a workmanlike, suffocating 1-0 win against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night.
If the Blackhawks are going to survive long enough to get Kane back in the lineup, that's likely how they're going to have play most nights between now and mid-May.
Kane, who may not be back until the conference finals, had 64 points in 61 games when he went down a month ago. Even with that missed time, Kane is tied for 10th in league scoring and still leads the Blackhawks in points. The Blackhawks were 11-10-3 in 2015 with Kane and sleepwalking most nights.
That's changed without Kane. What the Blackhawks lost in talent they gained in focus and dedication to the details, and it's translated into success, even if it's not overwhelming, dominant success.
"It's tough to lose a player of his quality, and obviously we're a better team with him in the lineup," Patrick Sharp said. "But when he goes down, there's a little more urgency in all our team meetings to improve across the board because we know one player can't replace what he does out there."
General manager Stan Bowman believed the same thing, which is why he replaced Kane with two players.
Antoine Vermette and Kimmo Timonen were added before the trade deadline, as Bowman used Kane's cap space to make his already deep squad (Kris Versteeg, who has 32 points in 49 games, was a healthy scratch Wednesday) even more formidable. The moves pushed the Blackhawks near the cap ceiling, but that won't matter should Kane return during the postseason, as the salary-cap rules do not apply.
Vermette gives coach Joel Quenneville three solid centers, with Jonathan Toews on the top line and Brad Richards, who scored the lone goal Wednesday, now on the third line. Vermette has just two assists in seven games with Chicago, but by having him play second-line minutes, he's freed Richards to post two goals and an assist in his past four games against softer matchups.
Timonen's workloads have been light—he was vigorously pedaling on a stationary bike after playing only 7:30 against the Rangers—but he's helped round out an already solid defense corps.
It's all combined to wake up the Blackhawks, who are now five points behind the Anaheim Ducks for the league's best record and have two games in hand.
"I think one way or the other, we realized what time of the year it is," Toews said. "It's important to be on top of our game and to really let all the work we put in go toward something. There's no time to wait now. We're working to find that consistency. If we have to play with or without some of our top players, we got to do what we got to do to fill the voids."
What's the biggest improvement since Kane's injury? Well, it's pretty obvious.
|Blackhawks before and after Patrick Kane's injury|
Corey Crawford (.964) and Scott Darling (.926) have been on fire, holding opponents to fewer than two goals per game. The Blackhawks have had the puck less without Kane, but the goaltending has been fantastic.
Is this a sustainable model? Probably not. But if the Blackhawks, who had played at home Tuesday, can hold a rested Rangers team to 25 shots, they can win their fair share of 3-2, 2-1 and 1-0 games without Kane.
"There's more attention to detail on both sides of the puck," Quenneville said of what's changed since Kane's injury. "We know if we want to win, we have to win tight games and have a check-first mentality.
"I still think we have to be better. I think there's more consistency [needed] to our team game."
Without Kane, the Blackhawks won't always be the most talented team on the ice, which means they need to find different ways to win against elite teams like the Rangers. The Blackhawks are still learning how to play without Kane, but if they get it figured out before the puck drops on the postseason, it will mean trouble for opponents.
"Every team has their ups and downs throughout the course of the season," Sharp said. "We've played our fair share of hockey over the past five or six years and we've played a lot of big games, so we're confident we can raise our level.
"At the same time, it's not a light switch that you can turn on or off. You want to make sure you're playing your best as the season goes on."
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.