By Brian Hamilton
CHICAGO – At 11:42 a.m. on Monday, Patrick Kane stopped at the edge of the rink at Johnny's Ice House West, the Blackhawks' auxiliary practice facility. He wiped down his stick before he skated onto the ice, double-tapped the blade and then dumped over a bucket of pucks before he went to work. A minute later, Jonathan Toews joined him. Chicago's captain picked up one of the scattered discs and stick-handled through the face-off circle before flicking a shot into the upper right corner of an empty net.
It was the first time since mid-March that the franchise cornerstones had skated together in public. They'd mostly been sequestered as they recovered from injuries – Kane's knee, Toews' nebulous "upper-body" – but here they were in full view as the Blackhawks' defense of their Stanley Cup championship began. And not one other skater on the roster joined them. Aside from two goalies, it was just Kane and Toews and 20 brisk minutes of hard work. This was a fitting opening scene for the postseason: Chicago will go nowhere in the playoffs without its two Conn Smythe Trophy winners drawing everyone's attention. But the Blackhawks are also going to need more than just Kane and Toews.
“The first four games I was out, the team went 4-0,” Toews said with a smile, moments after leaving the ice and towelling off his sweat-soaked scalp. “It was looking pretty good for a while there. Our team has always done well dealing with key players being hurt, whether it's guys like [Marian] Hossa or [Patrick Sharp] or Kaner, whatever. We've always found ways to step it up. Now when you get some top players back, it's always about those guys fitting in and being part of the room. Nothing changes that way.”
For Toews, the man known as Captain Serious, this was a hilarious understatement. In Chicago's looming series against the reeling but tight-checking Blues, there is no arguing the magnitude of the star forwards' presence. The pair combined for 57 goals and 80 assists this season, never mind the two playoff MVP trophies they earned previously. But there is concern about how sharp Kane and Toews will be after layoffs of 12 and six games, respectively, and whether their bodies can withstand the pounding that they are sure to endure from a physical division rival.
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In a mostly empty practice facility, there was no room for doubt. “It's definitely encouraging, how we'll they've been skating and how good they feel,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “We know their importance and what they bring to the team. We know they're ready. Obviously they haven't played games in a while, but they level they're accustomed to playing at – I think they should be fine.”
No one can know for sure until Game 1 on Thursday night. But that uncertainty was, well, a certainty from the moment last month that the Blackhawks elected to take the long view and proceed cautiously with both players. Kane suffered his knee injury on March 19 against St. Louis, when Brendan Morrow accidentally rolled into him. Toews hasn't played since March 30, when he was leveled along the boards by the Penguins' Brooks Orpik. (“It was a clean hit,” Toews said on Monday. “We've moved on.”)
The timing of their return aligned neatly with the playoffs. Chicago felt that the benefits of time to recharge after last year's Stanley Cup run, a full 82-game season and an Olympics stint outweighed the negatives of both players trying to recapture their form at the most critical time.
While Kane has been skating with the team, most of the rust removal for both players occurred out of sight. “We did some contact drills just to gauge ourselves, where we're at, tried to feel each other out a little bit,” Kane said. “But I think we're at the point now where we feel properly healed and if you play it's not going to hurt it anymore than it would if you played at a later date.”
The Blackhawks have made an effort to get both players up to game speed. Kane said that his coaches had simulated contact by whacking him and Toews with pads while they were skating. Kevin Delaney, the team's skating and skills development coach, dressed for some of the workouts in order to deliver less synthetic hits. In some drills, the pair had to battle through Delaney to get to the net and score.
There was no contact during their first public skate, but it was a high-intensity session filled with sharp cuts, stops and starts and bursts of explosive skating. It began with Kane and Toews skating and stick-handling in a series of dizzying loops between the boards and center-ice. So serpentine was the path traced by assistant Mike Kitchen before the drill began that Toews grinned and tapped Kane on the shin in a moment of incredulity.
Another drill involved repeatedly setting up for a net-front deflection, tracking down a puck along the boards and bringing it out for a backhand shot, then collecting another dump-in, looping around a glove on the ice and finally whipping in a wraparound attempt. Yet another featured both players exploding off the half-boards on a give-and-go toward the crease. Kane backhanded two consecutive shots past backup goaltender Antti Raanta, then slowed his momentum. Kitchen and fellow assistant Jamie Kompon playfully but vociferously hollered at Kane to keep going: There were two more pucks to shoot, two more reps in his turn.
As a smiling Kane set up on the other side of the rink for the next set, Kompon couldn't resist a verbal poke check at the prolific right winger. “He scored on the first two and he was ready to go home,” Kompon said.
In truth, Toews and Kane have been working overtime, or at least pushing up against their allowable limits. And neither feels his edge has been dulled by the long layoff.
“I don't feel like I lost anything,” Toews said. “It was only a short while to be away from playing games. For anyone who's been playing right until the end of the season, it's going to be an adjustment with the speed of the playoffs.”
Said Kane: “Obviously not playing a game before playoffs is something that happened, but especially going into the playoffs, you try to feel yourself out, where you're at, and then get right into game tempo and jump right in and play where you were before the injury.”
On this point, the Blackhawks might be a few strides ahead of the Blues. Eight St. Louis regulars missed their team's season finale due to injury, though coach Ken Hitchcock told reporters that all would return at some point during the first round. As the defending champions approach total health while the Blues wish for it, it seems likely that St. Louis might try to even the odds by laying heavy hits on Kane and Toews. “I would expect that even if I wasn't coming off an injury, to be honest with you,” Kane said.
It's certainly one way to disrupt Chicago's puck-possession game. Though Toews alluded to his team answering physicality with physicality, that would be an out-of-character approach for a team built on speed, scoring and responsible defensive positioning.
Toews (in red) can expect a rude reception from the Blues. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Instead, the Blackhawks ought to be concerned with again mustering some sort of second-line center production – veteran Michal Handzus gets the first shot there – while also finding the third-line pop that fueled their previous Cup runs. Kane and Toews can help by producing immediately. Their fresh legs and re-energized minds can prevent a repeat of what Quenneville called an “ordinary start” for both players to last year's postseason, which lasted into the second round and put the team on the brink of elimination against the Red Wings.
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If it's urgency that Quenneville is after, he need only remind his team that Chicago's last Stanley Cup defense began with the Blackhawks in a 3-0 first-round hole against the Canucks in 2011 and ended with a Game 7 loss. “Expectations that year and this year are kind of comparable,” the coach said. “Everybody likes our team, everybody believes that we can win a championship. But I don't feel the weight of the world that we have to win, we have to win, we have to win. We're all excited about the challenge.”
This was particularly true for two stars who were on the ice as the week progressed toward Game 1 against the Blues.
Kane not so subtly hinted at sprouting another playoff mullet -- “Might have to get another haircut,” he said -- and he and winger Brandon Saad evidently followed through after practice on Tuesday. But the most relevant sculpting is ongoing. Kane and Toews have logged many unseen hours rounding into shape for another Stanley Cup run, and during Tuesday's skate were on new line combinations that Quenneville hopes will bring some offensive balance: Toews centered for Kris Versteeg and Saad, instead of Hossa and Sharp, while Kane skated on a third line with Andrew Shaw and Bryan Bickell, instead of on the second-line, his regular spot.
The results of all this reconstitution won't become evident until Thursday night, but as long as the timing of Kane and Toews is finely tuned after their layoffs, the timing of their return couldn't be better.
“Back to the usual routine,” Toews said. “It's kind of nice.”