ANAHEIM, Calif. — Kris Versteeg’s back was turned, so he couldn’t see Patrick Kane waving his stick in the air from the low slot as he hurtled past the net. But he certainly heard Kane calling for the puck. So he fought off Ducks defenseman Mat Clark just long enough to get his stick on a one-handed pass behind the net by Brad Richards, sending a spectacular no-look, behind-the-back, through-the-legs touch pass to the front of the net just before being shoved aside by Clark.
The puck went right to Kane, who buried it.
“Amazing play,” Kane said following the Blackhawks’ thorough 4-1 victory over the Western Conference-leading Ducks. “I think I was just yelling for it because I knew how open I was. But I didn’t know if, on his angle, he’d be able to get it to me. It was a great pass to be able to slither through the guy, get the puck and tap it out. Great play by Richards, too, to keep it alive.”
The Hawks started for the circus trip 10 days ago with Joel Quenneville having just tried out yet another combination of players in a desperate search for the right mix. They’ll finish up the trip Saturday against the defending champion Los Angeles Kings knowing they’ve finally found it, especially on that second line, where Versteeg, Richards and Kane continue to dominate.
Since they were put together against Dallas in the last home game before the trip, Kane has five goals and seven assists, Versteeg has three goals and six assists, and Richards has a goal and five assists.
“We talk about it every day — we want to try to keep getting better and keep playing our game without trying to go too crazy and create too much by taking the high risk,” Versteeg said. “We’ve just got to keep playing the way we are.”
Richards had staked the Hawks to a 1-0 lead 7:58 into the first, taking a nice outlet pass from Brent Seabrook and shooting on a 2-on-1 with Versteeg. Andrew Shaw made it 2-0 less than five minutes later on what Kane called “maybe our prettiest play of the year,” as Daniel Carcillo fed Keith with a slick backhand, and Keith immediately found Shaw in the corner of the goalmouth for the tap-in.
The Hawks went cold for a spell after that, going nearly 14 minutes without a shot on goal. Meanwhile, the Ducks seized momentum on a bizarre goal, as Patrick Maroon’s shot caromed off the glass behind Corey Crawford and came back over the net, where Hampus Lindholm bunted the puck in out of mid-air.
But Versteeg set up Kane midway through the second with his highlight-reel pass, and Kane added an empty-netter to seal it against the shorthanded Ducks, who added defensemen Francois Beauchemin (hand) and Clayton Stoner (mumps) to their already blue-line-heavy injured list, and even announced a trade for Lightning defenseman Eric Brewer during the first period.
Tempers flared at the end of the second period when Anaheim’s Kyle Palmieri hit Johnny Oduya face-first into the boards along the bench, leaving Oduya bloodied below his left eye. Michal Rozsival reached over the bench to grab Palmieri by the head, and Carcillo hopped over the boards, held back by Shaw (possibly saving a suspension for Carcillo, though Quenneville said it was just a line change). Palmieri got a five-minute boarding major and a game misconduct for what Quenneville called “a dangerous hit”; the Hawks earned a too-many men bench minor. Oduya returned for the third period.
Also, Marian Hossa, who was robbed by Andersen in the second period and flipped his broken stick in frustration, took a Corey Perry stick in the ribs with 1:20 left and was down on the ice for a minute or two before skating off.
“I think he’s going to be OK,” Quenneville said.
The Hawks improved to 4-1 on the trip, with a rematch of the last two Western Conference finals pending Saturday in Los Angeles.
There’s an old axiom in the hockey world that by the time Thanksgiving rolls around, you know what you have as a team. The numbers back it up, too — in the past four years, more than 80 percent of the teams in playoff position at Thanksgiving qualified for the postseason.
But for the Hawks, a better indication might come in about two weeks. Following the back-to-back against the elite Ducks and Kings, they host perennial power St. Louis and division-leading Montreal before going to division-leading Nashville, New Jersey, Boston, and Long Island. That’s six genuine contenders in a seven-game stretch, capping a run of 10-of-12 on the road.
So far, so good.
“Can’t look too far ahead,” Kane shrugged. “I think the reason we’ve been doing pretty well on this trip is we’ve just worried about the next game.”