In the middle of a tough Western Conference First Round series against the St. Louis Blues, the Blackhawks coach moved Ben Smith up from the fourth line to center the second line. He flanked Smith with left wing Patrick Sharp and right wing Patrick Kane.
They started creating scoring chances against St. Louis and helped Chicago win that best-of-7 series in six games, but the line really busted out against the Minnesota Wild on Friday at United Center. Paced by Kane’s two goals in the third period, they were a difference-maker in a 5-2 victory in Game 1 of the second-round series.
“I just think it’s a line that’s had some success in the three or four games we’ve played together, and you look at the three players on it, everybody complements each other,” said Sharp, who picked up his first two assists of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs on Kane’s goals. “It’s nice to get a couple goals at a big time as a line, but we always want to improve as the series goes along.”
Calling them big goals might be underselling it.
Prior to Kane’s jaw-dropping dissection of the Minnesota defense on his first goal, the Wild had scored twice in the first 6:56 of the third period to tie the game 2-2, on goals by Clayton Stoner and Kyle Brodziak.
Combined with Minnesota dominating in shots, it could’ve become a meltdown moment for the defending Stanley Cup champions. Chicago developed a trend of coughing up third-period leads in the regular season then lost two straight 3-2 leads in the third period of the first two games against St. Louis, with each ending as a loss in overtime.
The revamped second line refused to let it happen Friday, led by Kane’s highlight-reel goal that made it 3-2 1:26 after Brodziak tied it.
Getting the puck from Sharp at the red line, Kane zipped into the left side of the offensive zone and cut left-to-right in front of defenseman Ryan Suter. Kane briefly debated a drop pass to Sharp but opted to carry the puck around the right of defenseman Jonas Brodin with one hand on his stick. Brodziak was too late collapsing from the top of the zone and Kane was in tight on Wild goalie Ilya Bryzgalov.
The backhand shot he shoveled past Bryzgalov to the short side was a hot topic after the game.
His second goal was the result of a great pass from Smith, who tapped Sharp’s pass to the slot back to Kane in the left circle for a wide opening on the back side of the net.
Kane appeared to shout “Showtime!” after each of the goals but said he doesn’t really remember.
“Sometimes I don’t even know what I’m saying,” Kane said. “I was pretty pumped up after that [first] one. You’re kind of in your own little world, so I don’t even know what I said.”
Teammates and linemates know what they saw and what they often see from Kane.
“He’s so calm with the puck in tight spaces and he makes shots that not a whole lot of people can make,” Sharp said. “That backhand is a good example of it. The thing I like about [Kane] the best is the big stages. He always seems to put one in, whether he’s back home in Buffalo in a big game, time and time again in the playoffs he scores goals and it seems like he wants that puck all the time.”
Thanks to Smith’s ability to battle down low to retrieve pucks, Kane and Sharp are getting it more. Scoring chances and goals are being created.
“The main thing [Smith] brings is work ethic and his ability to get pucks back,” Kane said. “He’s one of the best on the team at that, as far as battling in the corners. Sometimes you go to help him and you don’t even need to because he’s going to come up with the puck. So you try to get away from the crowd a little bit. He’s really good at that and he really wants to do good.”
Smith is filling a role that seems to find its own solution whenever the Blackhawks are successful in the postseason. Much has been written about Chicago’s lack of a long-term center on the second line, but each of the past two playoffs when the Blackhawks won the Cup, they had somebody play well in the middle of that group.
In 2010 it was Sharp. In 2013 it was Michal Handzus. Smith might be that guy this season if the Blackhawks go on another lengthy run.
“He’s a hard-working kid and probably one of the hardest workers on the team,” Kane said. “It’s nice to see him get rewarded with some ice time and some opportunity, because if anybody deserves it, it’s him.”