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Blackhawks Not Getting Enough from Lackluster Toews-Kane Duo After Game 2 Loss

Jonathan Willis@jonathanwillisNHL National ColumnistJune 7, 2015

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Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are generally Chicago’s most potent offensive weapons. As a rule, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville plays them on separate lines, all the better to create matchup problems for his team’s opponent. Every so often, though, he places his two best forwards on the same line and lets them tear through opposing defences.

Late in the Western Conference Final against Anaheim, the unification of Toews and Kane was a pivotal decision, perhaps even a series-deciding one. Two games into the Stanley Cup Final, the line has been a disaster.

It’s a real problem.

TAMPA, FL - JUNE 03: Jonathan Toews #19 of the Chicago Blackhawks and Ryan Callahan #24 of the Tampa Bay Lightning battle for the puck during Game One of the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Amalie Arena on June 3, 2015 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Scott Is
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The issue is exacerbated by the fact that Toews and Kane not only aren’t scoring, they also aren’t exactly containing any of Tampa Bay’s most potent forwards.

Through two games of the Final, Toews has spent nearly 19 minutes at evens against Ryan Callahan and just under 16 against J.T. Brown and Cedric Paquette. He’s played less than seven against each of Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson.

Toews has a well-deserved reputation as an elite two-way centre, the kind of guy who goes up against players like Stamkos and Johnson and comes out on top. So for the Lightning to be able to match him against a 21-year-old rookie, and even better to have that 21-year-old rookie shut him and Kane down, is a massive deal. It frees up Tampa Bay’s top two lines to pillage Chicago’s depth players; it gives value to a third line that has been almost completely inept offensively throughout the playoffs.

In Game 2, things got even worse, because Paquette and company outscored the Blackhawks’ supercharged top line in a 4-3 Lightning victory:

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That’s not how things are supposed to work for Chicago’s top line. Brandon Saad isn’t supposed to be the winger casually treated like a pylon in a one-on-one battle; Toews isn’t supposed to act as a blind for the likes of Paquette. And yet here we are.

As per NHL.com’s Arpon Basu, Toews was complimentary of Paquette after matching up against him in Game 1:

He's a very good player for his age. He skates very well, he has a lot of speed. Tampa has four lines that can play with speed and that can play with the puck. Their possession game is very, very strong. So for my line, it's not only a matter of playing well on offense, but also to play smart in our zone.

No matter the line we find ourselves against, we have to play that way, smart.

Smart play hasn’t always been in evidence in this series for that top line.

By my scoring chance counts, Toews has now been on the ice for four Chicago chances at even strength and nine Lightning opportunities. Kane is slightly better, on for six chances for and seven against. Kane and Toews have combined for one assist and seven shots through two games; Paquette and Callahan have a goal, two assists and also seven shots.

That the Blackhawks’ franchise forwards haven’t done enough through two games is an indisputable fact. The question is what happens going forward.

With all due respect to Paquette and Callahan—both honest players, one an emerging checking line forward and the other with a long and distinguished history as a two-way player—as a duo, they simply aren’t likely to be a match against Toews and Kane over the long haul. Quenneville could continue running his stars against them and expect at some point that they would break through.

Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

Chicago’s coach has other options, though. With Game 2 complete, Quenneville will now enjoy home-ice advantage and last change, giving him control over the matchup game. If he wants to run Toews and Kane against some other line, he can. If he keeps them together, he probably should.

Keeping them together may not be the optimal choice, though. One of Kane’s best moments early came when Quenneville sneaked him onto the fourth line in place of Andrew Shaw, creating a nice scoring chance for Andrew Desjardins and throwing off the Lightning’s strategy for controlling the dynamic winger.

Similarly, when Chicago scored to tie the game at 3-3 (a play on which Toews picked up the lone point either he or Kane has in the Final), it wasn’t with the Blackhawks’ two best forwards out there together; rather Marian Hossa was on the right wing and his drive toward the net was a vital part of Brent Seabrook’s goal:

It may be that splitting Toews and Kane is the best solution for Quenneville; it certainly seemed to be his preference for the majority of the season. It’s not certain what he’ll choose to do, but with the greater control afforded by home ice, it’s a very good bet that he’ll be active in trying to get his two key forwards going again. He and the ‘Hawks need Toews and Kane at their best if they are to win a third Stanley Cup in six years.

Statistics courtesy of NHL.com and NaturalStatTrick.com

Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.

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