CHICAGO -- Perhaps Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville was guilty of overthinking it all, of outsmarting himself, when he separated center Jonathan Toews and winger Patrick Kane at the start of the Stanley Cup Final. Though Toews, Kane and Bryan Bickell played a pivotal role in Chicago's dominant Western Conference Finals win over Los Angeles, the veteran coach decided to spread his offensive wealth, as he had for most of the regular season. Maybe that way, he would free at least one of them from the intimidating shadow of Boston's Zdeno Chara.
But when the Blackhawks fell behind the Bruins in this series, two games to one, Quenneville had to go back and play his old reliable card, and he's since been handsomely rewarded with two wins and almost twice as much offense as Chicago had mustered through the first three games.
Kane found the twine twice on Saturday night in Game 5, as he and his linemates lifted the Blackhawks to a 3-1 victory and to within one win of their second Stanley Cup since 2010. Reawakened since being reunited with Toews and Bickell, Kane looked as dynamic as any player not named Tuukka Rask has in this series. With his deft touch in close quarters around Rask's net, Kane was the obvious difference maker in this game.
"I think he's the best puck handler," Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith marveled. "I see him in practice. It's just a whole different level, his ability to skate with his head up, make plays in tight. I think maybe the only other guy [like that] is [Detroit center Pavel] Datsyuk."
Late in the first period, Chicago blueliner Johnny Oduya fired a shot from the point that shattered Bruins defenseman Dennis Seidenberg's stick and caused the puck to skitter just wide of the net. Rask had already gone down to play the initial shot, but waiting just off the goal was Kane, who jumped on the open chance and gave Chicago a 1-0 lead. A case of being in the right place at the right time, perhaps, but just more than five minutes into the second period, Kane struck again, crashing the net and finding a rebound that he roofed with a skillful backhander from the slot. Toews had secondary assists on both goals.
"They've had two good games in a row," Boston coach Claude Julien said. "[Kane] is very good at finding those quiet areas and sliding into the right spot. That's why he's a good player and scores a lot of goals. ... We just maybe have to have a little bit more awareness around our net, because both goals were scored the same way."
For the second straight game, too, the Blackhawks' top line wasn't stymied by the intimidating Bruins defense and, namely, their 6-foot-7 captain Chara, who along with Rask had previously silenced Chicago's scorers. But on Wednesday night, as Chicago dashed to a 6-5 overtime win, Chara went minus-3, his worst playoff rating since May 2009. And on the eve of Game 5, Toews spoke confidently about taking the game to the defenseman.
"[Chara] does a lot of good things, and he uses his size and his reach to his advantage," Toews said. "I think maybe at times, in the first couple games, we were giving him a little bit too much respect by trying to keep the puck away from him. He's not a guy that we should be afraid of. We should go at him, protect the puck from him, make plays around him and through him. We use our speed.
"You saw the goal that Marcus Kruger scored [in Game 4], [Michael Frolik] never stopped moving his feet and got around him -- great play by those two guys to finish off that play. It's a small example of the way we can expose him."
That would be the Blackhawks' plan of attack on Chara: wear him down. And so they took the body and worked the big defenseman physically, moving with speed through him. Instead of fearing his long reach and trying to avoid it altogether, they began working inside his radius and found space. On both of Kane's goals, Chara was inside protecting Rask, but Kane, nearly a foot smaller than the Bruins' captain, found the room in tight and worked quicker than Boston could react.
Chara, of course, answered in the third by slapping a bullet past Chicago goalie Corey Crawford to pull the Bruins to within a goal. But as the game wore on, the toll of the physicality of the series began to show. In what seemed like a matter of moments, the game really did turn into a war of attrition, as the third period started without the Bruins' Patrice Bergeron (taken to a local hospital for observation for a rumored ruptured spleen) and Toews (who spent the third period on the bench watching with an upper body injury). These were just the latest entries into the teams' logs of playoff pain, joining the likes of Boston's Nathan Horton, Chicago's Marian Hossa, and certainly a handful of others no one outside the dressing rooms knows about.
Neither coach was tipping his hand after the game, only saying that both Toews and Bergeron are day-to-day and will be reevaluated before Game 6 on Monday in Boston. Losing Bergeron would be a serious blow to Boston. For Chicago, if Toews can go, even at less than 100 percent, Kane's revival may prove to be the Hawks' saving grace.