ST. PAUL, Minn. – Patrick Kane traffics in embarrassment. You won’t hear an NHL player say it, but the fear of humiliation is really what’s at work when it comes to dealing with the Blackhawks star.
With his stickhandling skills and his singular feel for the game, he can embarrass even the most confident skaters in the league. It’s how a smallish hockey player can get large hockey players to back off like repelling magnets.
No one wants to be embarrassed on the ice. The best way to avoid that with Kane is to give him room, where he can find open teammates. Advantage, Hawks.
Or you can decide to get right up on him and risk being on that night’s highlight reel as he blows past you and your pair of cement skates. Advantage, Hawks.
“You have to honor his skill and honor the way he plays the game because he is so dynamic and creative with the puck,’’ said Minnesota center Jordan Schroeder, who faced Kane’s line often in the first three games of the Wild-Hawks series. Game 4 was Thursday night.
We spend a lot of time talking to Blackhawks players about what makes Kane special, but we might be talking to the wrong people. Imagine being on the other side. Kane is listed as 5-foot-11, 181 pounds, but he’s a load, the Wild say.
“He’s one of the best, if not the best player in the world,’’ Minnesota goalie Devan Dubnyk said Thursday morning. “That’s no secret. That’s not just surfacing in this series. It’s not surprising anybody. You try to be hard on a guy like that. You try to eliminate his time and space. You’ve got to be as patient as possible with him and just be prepared at all times. He’s capable of doing a lot of different things, so you’ve just got to be ready for it.’’
Hockey types are always talking about the importance of time and space on the ice. If you’re a defender, you want to cut down on the puck-handler’s room to maneuver, i.e. his time and space.
With all the talk of time and space, you might think we’re discussing astrophysics. I’m guessing Kane joins me in not knowing much about that topic, but he knows what he knows. He’s a hockey genius.
“He loves those curl-backs and finding guys coming to the zone,’’ forward Charlie Coyle said. “You’ve just got to be aware when he’s out there. You have to talk a lot (with teammates), especially in the D-zone when he’s coming in. He likes the turn-backs.’’
When Kane is gliding in the opponent’s zone, legs spread wide, the puck on his stick and his head up, he’s hunting.
“He’s a smart guy,’’ Wild center Kyle Brodziak said. “He knows the areas of the ice to get the puck where he has time and space when he gets it. He’s definitely one of the tougher guys to defend. I think it’s important for us, though, not to over-respect him. It’s important to put some pressure on him. Try forcing him to make some mistakes.’’
That’s another problem: Kane is difficult to hit. The most shocking thing about his broken clavicle was not that he came back so quickly from the Feb. 24 injury. It was that someone hit him that hard in the first place. Football people speak of a quarterback’s “escapability’’ in the pocket under pass-rush pressure. Kane has the same uncanny ability to turn the right way to avoid most hits. What should be a totaled car ends up being a fender bender.
What about that fear of embarrassment? No one wants to talk about it.
“He’s pretty shifty,’’ Coyle said. “He’s probably one of the best puck-handlers in the league, if not the best. But you can’t look at it like that. You’ve got to go in like, ‘I’m going to get this puck. I’m going to play the body on this guy.’ You’ve got to be positive. You can’t think about the worst that can happen. Think about the best that can happen.’’
In this series, at least Dubnyk hasn’t had to deal with Kane in shootouts, a regular-season gimmick that is not part of postseason overtime games. Kane has perfected charging toward the goalie on shootouts and then almost slowing to a halt, where he uses his quick hands and anticipation to make the goalie commit. It’s a step or two beyond borderline unfair.
“That shows his patience and his ability to have his head up and try to outwait you,’’ Dubnyk said. “Don’t have to worry about that now.’’
He was smiling. For the moment.