For two games earlier this month, Patrick Kane looked almost ordinary. The relentless offensive pressure was missing. The creative flourishes and nifty passes were nowhere to be found. The best player in the world this season looked like, well, just another guy.
It’s no coincidence that those were the two games Artemi Panarin missed with an illness.
“I had been bugging Kaner about it,” Jonathan Toews said with a mischievous smile. “The two games that [Panarin] missed, he didn’t seem quite himself out there.”
What Kane has done on the ice so far this season can’t be overstated. He has a remarkable 15-point lead in the scoring race, with 84 points in just 62 games. That’s 20 more points than he had when he was the league’s leading scorer through 61 games last season before he broke his clavicle. He has a career-high 35 goals. He had a franchise-record 26-game point streak, and has posted at least three points in a game eight times.
But perhaps the most significant number? One. As in the number of line combinations Kane has played with. Aside from a very brief Panarin dalliance with the top line at the start of the season, Panarin, Kane and Artem Anisimov have spent the entire season together. For the first time since Kane’s early years in Chicago, he has consistent linemates. Not only that, he has high-end linemates. And after years of playing with anyone and everyone on the Blackhawks roster, the difference is noticeable.
“It’s always nice to have that consistent and chemistry,” Kane said. “You know what to expect out of your linemates. … [I’m] really happy with my linemates right now. Wouldn’t want to change too much.”
Kane always has downplayed the effect of the ever-changing cast of characters to his left, and still points out that he enjoys the occasional shift with Toews during third-period pushes when the Hawks are chasing a lead.
But the fact is, while Toews has had the luxury of playing alongside Marian Hossa and either Brandon Saad or Patrick Sharp on a largely consistent basis over the past few seasons, Kane had stints — at least a game or two, not just an occasional shift —with 15 different forwards over the previous three seasons, including a whopping nine centers: Dave Bolland, Marcus Kruger, Michal Handzus, Ben Smith, Brandon Pirri, Andrew Shaw, Teuvo Teravainen, Brad Richards and Toews. There was even a brief training-camp dalliance with Saad, who had never played center in his life.
Now? He’s on one of the best — and most consistent —lines in hockey. Having a big, reliable, talented center such as Anisimov, and a highly skilled winger such as Panarin game in and game out has allowed Kane to maximize his considerable talent. Kane and Panarin (who’s seventh in the league in scoring with 57 points) seem to feed off each other’s creativity, and each deserve a good share of credit for fueling the other’s success.
“We just work together,” Anisimov said. “[Panarin and Kane] are so good together, making magic, and I just go to the net and make room for them. It just works.”
Along with Corey Crawford, the line has been one of just two constants for the Hawks to lean on in a wildly erratic season of extreme highs and lows.
“Not a lot of games we go through without some pretty big contributions from that line,” Toews said.
With all the double-shifting he does in third periods, and his work on the power play, Kane still gets to play with just about everybody in the lineup at some point. And he still relishes those sudden bursts of chemistry and energy that Quenneville’s line blender affords him. But while he’s never complained about his lack of a consistent line, it’s clear how happy he is now that he has one.
“I don’t know too many lines that stay together throughout a whole season, especially in this league with the amount of games you play and how tough it is to generate and produce every night,” Kane said. “I think it’s been successful. … But I don’t think either of the three of us are satisfied with where we’re at, and we want to keep improving on our game every time we get a chance to play. That’s what I like about playing with these two guys.”