SAN JOSE, Calif. — Patrick Sharp pounced on the loose puck at center ice as soon as Brad Richards blocked Ryan Getzlaf’s pass, then wheeled around and raced in across the blue line. With two Ducks defenders closing in, Sharp slipped a nifty little no-look, backhanded drop pass for a crossing Patrick Kane while setting a pick on the two defenders, clearing the room for Kane to fire an absolute rocket and score the Blackhawks’ third goal of the night Friday night in Anaheim.
Kane offered a solid celebration, but it was Sharp who was the more exuberant of the two — chasing down Kane, unleashing a one-legged fist pump and smacking his linemate on the back of the head with a big smile on his face.
This passing thing is pretty fun, too. Even at age 33, Sharp’s game is always evolving.
“I started out just straight-line shooting the puck and scoring goals,” Sharp said. “And I think over the last few years, I’ve been able to be a little more patient with the puck and make plays.”
Fact is, the guy known as “Shooter” around the Hawks dressing room has averaged nearly 40 assists per year over his last four full seasons, including a career-high 44 last season. In his last five games entering Saturday’s late contest in San Jose, Sharp had a goal and eight assists, including four against the Ducks.
Of course, it helps playing with Kane, alongside whom Sharp has spent so much of his career. Since moving up to the second line in the wake of Kris Versteeg’s hand injury, Sharp has three goals and nine assists in 11 games.
If putting Kane with Jonathan Toews is Joel Quenneville’s nuclear option, putting Kane with Sharp is his safety net. It just always seems to work. Only in recent weeks, their roles have been reversed. It’s suddenly Kane from Sharp, not Sharp from Kane.
“You play with a guy for going on eight years, you’re going to develop some chemistry,” Kane said. “It seemed to develop early on in my career and his career, too, where I was maybe a little bit more of a passer and he was a shooter on a lot of goals. Now it’s mix and match. I think it’s developed over a long time, but I think the one thing about Sharpie is he’s one of those guys that really wants to do well. When you play with a guy like that, you can really enjoy playing hockey, because you know every shift, you want to create something and make something happen.”
Sharp made plenty happen in the Ducks game. Besides the four assists and the plus-4 rating, he was winning puck battles, creating turnovers, and driving possession all game long. It was his best game of the year, and the latest sign that he’s back to 100 percent following the right-knee injury suffered in Montreal on Nov. 4 that cost him more than a month.
“I’m starting to feel better from the injury,” he said. “You never want to make excuses as a player, but the more you skate on a lower-body injury like the one I had, the better it feels.”
When Versteeg was on the left wing, both Kane and Richards were highly productive. So Sharp didn’t want to step in and disrupt the chemistry by hogging the puck. He’s still the most aggressive shooter on the team, but a little patience is going a long way. Maybe he thought differently as a 23-year-old, but as a 33-year-old, Sharp doesn’t care so much how the puck goes in — only that it does.
“Kane and [Richards] both want the puck out there in offensive situations,” Sharp said. “They both can hang on to it for an extra second longer and make plays. I’m kind of taking it upon myself to move my feet a little bit better, get to the dirty areas, and try to get them the puck as much as possible. I probably am a shooter more than a playmaker, but if you move the puck around and it goes in like [it did on Friday], we’ll gladly take it.”