No matter how many goals he scores, no matter how much his line tears up the league, no matter how much hardware he racks up, Patrick Kane is always going to be a second-liner with the Blackhawks.
That’s because Jonathan Toews is the No. 1 center, and his line — in all its dozen-plus incarnations over the past two seasons — is always designated the “top line.”
“Yeah, I think they’ve always been the first line, right?” Kane said with a laugh. “They’re No. 1 on the depth chart. Hopefully, going into the playoffs, you have that 1A, 1B type of situation.”
Well, it’s only February, but that’s certainly the case these days, as the Hawks’ top two lines are red hot, and feeding off each other. Since Toews was joined on the top line by Nick Schmaltz and Richard Panik, the trio has combined for 15 goals and 23 assists in 10 games, nine of which were victories. In that same span, Kane has nine goals and seven assists, even matching Toews’ hat trick in Minnesota with one of his own the next game.
Toews shrugged off the idea that there’s internal competition between himself and Kane, but Kane freely admitted it exists.
“Sure, absolutely,” Kane said. “There’s definitely some motivation there, for sure. You see Jonny get hot, you want to follow him. He’s been doing a great job of leading us as of late, so I think that’s an important thing.”
Both Toews and Kane were having subpar seasons through the first half. Kane was still racking up points, thanks in part to a career year by Artem Anisimov, but he had just eight goals through the first 32 games, far below the pace he set last season when he scored a career-high 46. But only five players in the league have more goals than his 16 since.
Toews, meanwhile, had just four goals in his first 26 games this season; he has 12 in the 27 games since. Two months ago, Toews was destined for the worst offensive season of his career. But he’s been so ridiculously productive lately, that he’s exactly back at his career average of 0.87 points per game. After dealing with a back injury that cost him nine games in November and December, Toews looks like his old self again, with that familiar burst of acceleration and the strength to win battles in the corners and to get to loose pucks in the crease.
“We’re so much deeper as a team when both lines are dangerous [and] effective,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “It gives the other team something to think about over the course of a game. And when they’re both contributing offensively, it’s tough to contain.”
Indeed, Toews’ resurgence has completely changed the complexion of the team. For the first time, really, since the start of last season, the Hawks aren’t just a one-line team, leaning heavily on Kane, Artemi Panarin and Anisimov. Opponents now have to pick their poison, because they can only use their shutdown line on one or the other.
Not that anyone’s been able to shut down either line lately.
“It’s good that both lines are producing,” Toews said. “We’re clicking and want to keep that going.”
And with the Minnesota Wild and the top seed in the Western Conference suddenly within reach, the top two lines — or perhaps more accurately, the two top lines — could make the difference.
“You see the way they play — they control the puck, they’re fending off checks, they get to the net,” Kane said of Toews’ line. “It’s definitely a little bit of motivation. It couldn’t come at a better time, especially with this stretch run, where we need to win games going into the playoffs. Those guys have been playing awesome. They’ve been leading the charge, and [we’re] just trying to follow.”