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eric duhatschek

As is the modern-day custom, the cap proclaiming the Chicago Blackhawks as Western Conference champions was perched jauntily on Patrick Kane's head.

This was Saturday night, minutes after the Blackhawks had advanced to the Stanley Cup final for the third time in six years, Kane setting up three goals, his partner in crime, Jonathan Toews, scoring twice in the first 12 minutes to eliminate the resilient but ultimately overmatched Anaheim Ducks.

Chicago's win sets up an intriguing final against the Tampa Bay Lightning, a young up-and-coming team that probably reminds the Blackhawks of where they were back in, say, 2009, when their extraordinary run of playoff success started. Back then, Kane and Toews were just a couple of newbies, highly touted young players who had their whole professional lives in front of them.

How would that go? Who could really say?

But now, eight years into their respective careers, the answers have flooded in, and they are among the most decorated players of their generation. Toews, at 27, has two Olympic gold medals on his résumé, a world junior championship, plus two Stanley Cup championships, with a decent chance at winning a third. Kane, 26, took home silver Olympic medals when Toews won gold, but has been integral in the Blackhawks' rise too – from a sorry, poorly run organization to one that hums along on all cylinders, willing to take bold steps and big chances to win in the now, because championships are what matters in pro sports, not close calls.

Next year, Toews's and Kane's salaries rise by about $4-million (U.S.), which will create new salary-cap headaches for general manager Stan Bowman. So time may be of the essence.

"We've had some good accomplishments in here, some things to be proud of, but at the same time, who knows if these opportunities are going to come around this often?" Kane acknowledged. "We thought we were right there last year and didn't get the job done. This team learns from different experiences and different mistakes and tries to incorporate that."

Kane's reference was to last year's seventh-game loss to the Los Angeles Kings in the 2014 Western Conference final, on a deflected goal in overtime – surely the cruellest way imaginable to end a Stanley Cup run.

Curiously, Kane went on to describe Saturday's game against the Ducks as "probably the most nervous and anxious I was before a game over the past few years, just because we had the same opportunity last year and you don't want to let it slip away again. You start thinking about what the feeling's going to be after the game, if you're going to be devastated or happy and moving on to the Stanley Cup final."

Based on the hoots and the hollers in the dressing room postgame, happiness clearly prevailed.

So often, a player's career is judged by how they perform when the games matter the most.

Since 2009, only Kane (with eight) has contributed more multigoal playoff performances than Toews. As a team, Chicago is 11-4 the past 15 times it has faced playoff elimination in that span, and Kane has scored 20 points in those contests.

Kane is also up to 20 scoring points in these playoffs, and that's remarkable considering he missed the final 21 regular-season games recovering from a broken clavicle. Kane received clearance to play for the start of the playoffs and seems to just be getting stronger as the playoffs move along.

"Never when I got hurt did I think of getting to the Stanley Cup final or even the Western Conference final," Kane said. "I was just trying to take it day by day and do what I could to get better."

Sometimes, a close series can also turn on small tactical changes, and Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville made one of those toward the end of Game 5, by putting his two stars together on the same line. Quenneville doesn't usually do that except on the power play, because by splitting up Toews and Kane at even strength, it can give an opponent fits in the matchup game.

Pick your poison – do you use your shutdown pair against Kane, with his array of dazzling open ice moves? Or Toews, who battles and competes harder than anyone playing the game at the highest level these days? But when Quenneville put the two together, it fundamentally turned the tide in the series.

"Kaner with his play and patience level, the play selection, as good as it is," Quenneville said. "Toews, call it everything – he really gives us a lot of options offensively and defensively. They play the right way. They had really a couple big games for us."

Toews said Friday that a player's performance in elimination games ultimately shows people what you have as a hockey player.

Did Toews do that Saturday night?

"Well, I hope so – for at least one period," Toews answered with a laugh. "I think across the group, our leadership group, we kind of want to own up to each other and be accountable to each other. We have a great leadership group that everyone responds to. Everyone knows they want to contribute and step up and bring their best game. As an individual, that's all you can ask for.

"You let the chips fall in the end."

Amid the euphoria of overcoming a 3-2 series disadvantage to the Ducks, Kane also cautioned that the Blackhawks haven't won anything yet.

"We put ourselves in a position to start a new series and it's going to be a fun one," Kane said. "We'll try to get ready for Tampa here, but enjoy this one too, because it's a great accomplishment – but it's not exactly the end-all yet."

No, the end-all would be another Stanley Cup championship, and then you can really talk about the greatness of Toews and Kane.

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