TAMPA, Fla. — Let’s see. An opposing team that likes to move the puck up the ice quickly, defense being, if not an afterthought, then certainly not in the top three thoughts. The potential for scads of goal-scoring opportunities. Open spaces in which to roam and skate free.
I think Patrick Kane just fainted from giddy anticipation.
The Blackhawks and the Lightning will meet in the Stanley Cup Final, starting Wednesday, and it’s the kind of matchup that favors a player like Kane. Good news for the Hawks: There’s no player like Kane, no one who can keep the puck on his stick so easily, no one who can find teammates so creatively, no one who can score goals in such timely fashion.
It’s not a given that Kane will raise his game against Tampa Bay. He was supposed to be Team USA’s star at the Sochi Olympics but struggled all the way through, going scoreless in six games. He was dealing with the death of his grandfather and wasn’t sharp at all.
But the bigger the spotlight, the better Kane usually plays, which is why no one should be surprised if he has a huge series against the Hawks’ doppelgangers.
There is no need to journey inside his head to try to explain what drives him this time of year. Better to look at his head. This is a guy who gets a mullet with side stripes before every postseason. That’s all you need to know. He wants your undivided attention. He wants you to look at him.
He especially wants you to look at him when a game and a title are on the line. He snuck the Cup-winning goal past Flyers goalie Michael Leighton in 2010. He won the Conn Smythe trophy as the most valuable player in the 2013 postseason, a postseason that saw another championship come back to Chicago.
This is his time and his space.
There are stats that will back that up, but what’s the point? You’ve seen what he does with your own eyes. What can numbers say about no-look goals and mind-reading passes? You know there’s a good chance he’ll do a number on the Lightning at some point in the series.
I’ve never seen a sport that lends itself to such tortured stats. You know the kind: The Hawks are 13-0 in games in which Duncan Keith scores on a wrist shot in the second minute of the second period. Or the Hawks are 6-1 when Teuvo Teravainen needs to use the toilet between periods, but only on two-day’s rest.
All I know is that when Kane is good, the Blackhawks usually are too. If he has a big series, the Hawks will win. They might win even if he doesn’t have a monster Final, but they’ll definitely win if he’s a beast against Tampa Bay — or as beastly as a 5-foot-11, 177-pound player can be.
What we’re looking at here is the possibility of a pickup game of epic proportions. The Lightning can go toe to toe with the Hawks in terms of talent, or they at least can with their first two lines. Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov have the speed and skill that Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Brandon Saad have.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper said Tuesday that Kucherov and Kane are similar players, but until Kucherov develops Kane’s flair for the dramatic in the biggest games, well, no, they’re not.
“The puck follows those guys around,’’ Cooper said. “It’s like they’ve got Velcro on their stick. No chance of getting it, all of a sudden, they have it.’’
Of late, Hawks coach Joel Quenneville has taken to putting Kane and Toews on the same line, something he does when he wants to win. We’ve heard all the reasons why Kane shouldn’t be on the same line as Toews — the Hawks are more dangerous when their talent is spread over several lines, opponents can’t try to cancel out Kane-Toews with one checking line, etc. All fine reasons. Reasonable reasons, even.
But the Hawks are better and more dynamic when the two of them are together on the ice. Quenneville mixes and matches players all season long, but when he really needs scoring, it suddenly occurs to him that, hey, Toews and Kane! Together!
So sit back and enjoy the show. Watch the little guy make things happen with open ice around him, watch him make his teammates better and watch him give the Lightning a taste of their own fast-acting poison.
Blackhawks in seven. Hmmm, I wonder who’ll have the Cup-winning goal?