There is something distracting and vaguely disconcerting about the Chicago Blackhawks' Patrick Kane in these playoffs, and it probably starts with those weird mutton-chop sideburns that have gradually grown into a full, if scraggly, beard. Kane looks as if he could be at home in a Sherlock Holmes period piece, perhaps playing a skinny Dr. Watson to Jonathan Toews's Holmes. Kane and Toews are a dynamic duo, together on the same team since the start of their respective careers, but mostly playing apart in these playoffs.
Toews has been everything he's cracked up to be – a leader, a scorer, a difference maker. Kane? Not so much. Coach Joel Quenneville likes to play the two of them together on the power play but separately at even strength.
Kane usually plays with Patrick Sharp and neither has done much so far in the third round against the Los Angeles Kings. After all the focus on how the series would rise and fall with the top lines, it has actually been the play of the respective second lines that have made the difference. Jeff Carter's line, with Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson, have produced 15 scoring points in three games, the primary reason why the Kings lead the best-of-seven Western Conference final 2-1 heading into Monday's fourth game.
Sharp scored a goal with five seconds to go in regulation Saturday and the game out of reach to break out of a scoring funk. For someone used to scoring big goals at key moments throughout his career, Kane has been astonishingly quiet in the series.
"I don't think I've played up to par for myself the first three games of the series," said Kane, following Blackhawks practice Sunday. "It would be nice to turn that around and play good in Game 4 – take it as a new game, wipe the slate clean, come out with a good attitude Monday and see what happens."
According to Kings defenceman Drew Doughty, the game plan against Kane and Sharp thus far has worked to perfection.
"You want to frustrate them, give them no room and play them physically," Doughty said. "We know that Kane likes to pick up the puck, kind of be fancy, have a lot of room and gain speed that way. So we're just trying to limit the ice for him – and play him hard. It's the same with Sharp. Even though they haven't done much lately, we know they're going to have their best game in Game 4. We got to be prepared for that."
You have to think all the hockey the Blackhawks have played over the past two seasons – a deep run into June last year, when they won the Stanley Cup, followed by an early start to this season, followed by their Olympic participation, followed by another run to the third round – may be taking a collective physical toll on them.
Not all Olympians seem to be running on fumes at the moment, but collectively, the Blackhawks have played more hockey than anyone in the past 17 months and it looks as if caught up to them in the third periods of the past two games, where they were badly outplayed.
Or, in the case of Kane, it could just be he's biding his time again. Chicago has won two of the past four Stanley Cup championships, and put the Kings on the sidelines last year, with Kane scoring the double overtime winner in Game 5, the third of his three goals. Earlier this postseason, Kane eliminated the Minnesota Wild, also by scoring the decisive clinching OT goal. Most people might also remember how Kane scored the OT winner against the Philadelphia Flyers to clinch the 2010 Stanley Cup. He has a knack for these types of things – and, as a short and slight player, flies in the face of what many people might think of as a big-game player.
All he does is produce when it matters.
"But you can't go into games thinking about scoring, or thinking you've got to have a big point night," Kane cautioned. "That's only going to set yourself up for failure. The better way to engage it is: try to play fast, try to command the puck, try to get in and make plays and hopefully see a result at the end of the night."
Kane, according to Kings defenceman Jake Muzzin, is "undercover fast – so he doesn't look like he's going fast, but he is. He's going to get chances, but if you limit the chances and keep them to the outside, hopefully they're not the chances that cost you. Yeah, you gotta play hard on that guy, or he'll make you look silly."
Players such as Kane and Toews, difference makers year in and year out, keep coaches employed. Kane went first overall in the 2007 draft, so his raw ability was no great secret to anyone. But still, no one can ever say how that natural ability will translate into big moments of key games, when other equally skilled players tighten up, or otherwise get overwhelmed by the moment. It might just be Kane's happy-go-lucky attitude, which keeps the nerves from strangling him and believing that his breakthrough moment is just around the next corner.
"We've had a good track record of coming back in series, so hopefully, history can repeat itself and we can do it again," said Kane. "It's not going to be easy. L.A.'s playing pretty well and we know if they have momentum, they're maybe the best team in the league, and have been the best team in the playoffs when they do have momentum. We have to try to get it back from them and sustain it."