- Craig Custance
NHL players can tell when their teammates are nervous. Even at the highest level, when the Stanley Cup is on the line, guys can spot the player who is just trying to get through a shift without making a mistake. They can spot the guy who probably doesn't want the puck on his stick and is looking to get off the ice without incident.
Playing in a game on the biggest stage, like tonight's Game 6, when the Stanley Cup is in the building, is about slowing it down. The mind is racing a million miles an hour, and the best players in those moments find a way to overcome that mental state.
Patrick Kane is one of those players.
There's debate as to whether a hockey player can be considered clutch, whether a hockey star can take over a big game on the biggest stage and under the confines of what makes hockey the most team-oriented sport of them all.
But time after time, when the same player finds a way to rise above and to score the biggest goals, it stops being a coincidence. Kane famously won the 2010 Stanley Cup when he beat Michael Leighton in overtime of Game 6 against the Philadelphia Flyers. His Chicago Blackhawks teammates piled on the ice, some wondering if they might get a penalty for too many men because they never actually saw Kane's shot go in.
During this season's playoff run -- against two teams known for smothering their opponents' offensive production and shrinking any room to operate on the ice -- Kane's production has been just as timely. He has seven goals in seven games against the Los Angeles Kings and Boston Bruins. He had a hat trick, including the game winner, in the Blackhawks' double-overtime win over the Kings in the Western Conference finals clincher. He had two more in Saturday's win in Chicago that brings the Blackhawks so tantalizingly close to another Stanley Cup.
If the Blackhawks are going to win this thing, the good money is on Kane seeing it through with one more big-time goal, because he has the unique skill set to thrive in these situations. He's had it for a long time.
"He was never afraid. You could tell that when he was a junior player," said John Hynes, coach of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, who also coached Kane at USA Hockey's national development team program. "The poise with the puck he had when he was under pressure. He always had poise and confidence going into those situations."
For those who have seen the 24-year-old Kane grow into one of the game's clutch performers, it's a combination of forces that makes it happen.
One aspect of Kane's makeup that Hynes thinks is most underappreciated is his competitive streak, that intense drive when he's on the ice. In Chicago, Kane is looked at in contrast to teammate Jonathan Toews, Captain Serious. Kane is the laid-back guy who cracks a few jokes, then pops in a big goal. Toews is seen as the consummate competitor whose inner drive wills his team to success.
It makes for a good narrative, but former teammate Adam Burish said it misses the mark.
"Toews is always intense," said Burish, now with the San Jose Sharks. "When he's having dinner, he's intense. When hockey starts, Kane is every bit as intense as Jonathan Toews. When he's on the ice, he wants to be the best player. He wants to beat you as bad as any player I've played with. He has a nasty drive. A lot of times he's misunderstood."
But not by those he's playing against.
"He's trying to kill you," Burish said. "He's trying to score a hat trick every game. He wants to be the best player on the ice every game, just as much as Sidney Crosby, and just as much as Toews."
The Stanley Cup finals have shifted with the combination of Kane and Toews finding a way to not only neutralize Zdeno Chara, but to beat him when he's on the ice. Toews' strengths are a huge reason for that -- he's battling for pucks along the boards, and he's taking a beating in front of the net. But Kane's game complements that perfectly, because as good as Chara is at erasing time and space on the ice, Kane may be better at creating it. Or at least finding what little space remains.
His two goals in Game 5 came as he circled the ice patiently seeking the perfect spot in which to position himself for an opportunity to score.
"The biggest thing is he's so dangerous around the net, and it seems any time he gets an opportunity down there, he scores," Bruins forward Brad Marchand said Sunday afternoon. "The biggest thing is [you] just have to try and eliminate him when he's around the net. Make sure you're aware of where he is. He's very sneaky. He's always curling around the back side of the net and things like that. He finds a way to get open and find those loose pucks."
And when he finds them, he rarely messes up the scoring chance. His hands in tight are as good as anyone's in the game. On his first goal in Game 5, he went from forehand to backhand in a blink. On the second goal, he roofed a backhand effortlessly.
"[He] very rarely bobbles the puck," teammate Patrick Sharp said. "Everything always seems to land flat on the stick. He doesn't panic around the net. He's in the right spot."
Hynes credits an advanced hockey IQ for that innate ability. Kane feels the game, and his hockey sense allows him to anticipate plays well before they're made -- with or without the puck.
"He has the ability to anticipate and find holes where the puck is going to be," Hynes said. "When he doesn't have the puck, he has good instincts and reads where the puck is going to be, where it could be. He's not afraid to go to the hard areas -- net front, behind the net, in between the faceoff circles -- those are the areas he continually goes when he doesn't get the puck ... his mind is one step ahead."
When Burish joined the Sharks, one of his first conversations with Joe Thornton was about Kane. The Sharks' captain said that there's not a better player in the NHL at handling the puck and slowing the game down when he has it.
"That's coming from Joe Thornton, who plays as slow and patient a game as I've ever seen," Burish said.
When Kane is skating with the puck, it's as if there's a magnet attached to his stick. There's always a feeling something big is going to happen as he skates into the offensive zone.
In Philadelphia in 2010, as Game 6 extended into overtime, Burish had a notion Kane was going to end it. He was the perfect candidate. He wants the puck in those big moments. He wants that spotlight and pressure. Games like Monday night's in Boston are when Kane is at his best.
When hockey is at its most meaningful, Kane is trying to be a difference-maker during every shift. There are no nerves, no fear of making a mistake.
"This guy is trying to go and make a game-changing play every time he's on the ice," Burish said. "If anybody is feeling pressure, it should be that guy, but he just goes out there again and again and again. It's not a coincidence. It's not a fluke. It's no lucky bounces. He's that good."
NHL players can tell when their teammates are nervous. Even at the highest level, when the Stanley Cup is on the line, guys can spot the player who is just trying to get through a shift without making a mistake.