There is something about the biggest stage that just naturally bring out the best in the Chicago Blackhawks' Patrick Kane, a player who had such a slow start to these playoffs that he was busily defending his scoring record (or lack thereof) as recently as the third round against the Los Angeles Kings.
But then Kane went out and scored three times in the series-clinching game against the Kings – and he's carried that momentum right into the Stanley Cup final.
It was two goals from Kane which offset a third-period goal by Zdeno Chara and gave the Blackhawks a thrilling 3-1 victory over the visiting Boston Bruins in an impossibly exciting game Saturday night at the United Centre. The final goal, by Dave Bolland, went into the empty net after Boston's Torey Krug was tripped up by the Chicago blue line as the Bruins scrambled madly to tie it up.
On a night of carnage and attrition in which both teams ultimately lost their No. 1 centres to injuries, the victory by the Blackhawks gave them a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. Chicago can win their second Stanley Cup in four years if they can defeat the Bruins in Boston on Monday night.
It remains to be seen who, among the teams' respective star players, will be available for duty that night.
The Bruins lost centre Patrice Bergeron to an undisclosed injury near the end of the first period, believed to have occurred on a hit by Michal Roszival. Bergeron played only 52 seconds in the second period – one regular shift and then a 16-second spin around the ice in which he almost immediately headed to the bench. Following the second intermission, Bergeron – a leading candidate for the Conn Smythe trophy as the playoff's MVP – was taken to hospital by ambulance for further tests.
Meanwhile, the Blackhawks' No. 1 centre, Jonathan Toews, who set up Kane for the first two goals, was crushed by a hit from Bruins' defenceman Johnny Boychuk towards the end of the second period and left the ice gingerly. Toews was on the Blackhawks' bench for the third period, but Marcus Kruger moved up from the fourth line to play between Kane and Bryan Bickell to take his place in the line-up. Boychuk's hit appeared to catch Toews high and will be reviewed by the NHL's department of player safety.
Blackhawks' coach Joel Quenneville described Toews' injury as an "upper body" issue and said he was hopeful that he'd be able to play in the next game. His Bruins' counterpart, Claude Julien, wouldn't go into any details about Bergeron's injury, but did acknowledge if both players happened to miss the next game, then "that kind of evens itself out if that's the case. But there's still a lot of good players on both teams that can certainly make things happen. It's a challenge. It's about both teams wanting it bad enough and hoping guys step up and do the job if those guys aren't back, and that works for both sides. And I'm sure that's something that both coaches would like to see from their players."
The Bruins moved first-year Swedish forward Carl Soderberg into Bergeron's place on the line with Brad Marchand and Jaromir Jagr. Boston coach Claude Julien opted to dress Soderberg in place of Kaspars Daugavins, in the hopes that he could provide more of an offensive presence. By the end of the game, the 27-year-old forward, who only joined the Bruins for the final six games of the regular season, was playing top-six minutes.
Injuries are a fact of life in every playoff run, and one of the reasons the Blackhawks and Bruins managed to get this far was their singular ability to keep all the key players healthy. Boston lost centre Greg Campbell with a broken leg in their series victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins, in what turned out to be a significant loss to the team.
"It's been a war," said Quenneville. "It's been a battle. It's every game, every shift you're fighting for every kind of shift around the ice. It's a fast paced game. You look at every minute from Game 1 to where we're at today, it's been an amazing series, and relentless hockey, and I commend the guys on both teams for leaving it out on the ice."
Bergeron had scored most of the big goals for the Bruins, ever since they eliminated the Toronto Maple Leafs in the opening loss, and his absence was keenly felt. So, for that matter, was Toews' who went head-to-head against Chara for the second consecutive game and seemed to be getting the best of him again. Chara, who was on the ice for five goals against in last Wednesday's 6-5 loss to Chicago, was on the ice for two more in Saturday night's game. But it was also Chara's goal early in the third that pulled the Bruins within one and made a game of it.
Ultimately, it was the opportunistic Kane who made the offensive difference.
"I don't think this game had to happen to define Kaner as a big-time player," said Blackhawks' forward Patrick Sharp. "He's had plenty of opportunities and showed up in big games with big performances, so I knew he was a big-time player before tonight."
Quenneville elected to split up Kane and Toews for the start of the series, with a view to keeping one or the other away from Chara. That strategy seemed flawed in hindsight, after Quenneville put the two back together and they rediscovered the magic that they'd had at different times during the season and the playoffs.
"We're different style players, but I think we complement each other very well," said Kane. "We've played together for six years now. I know we didn't play together very much this year, but throughout times in the past you can look back at those times that we've had success. He's a great player. He makes it easy to play hockey."
Kane's first goal came at the 17:26 mark of the first period, on a broken play … literally. Johnny Oduya's point shot broke the stick of Bruins' defenceman Dennis Seidenberg, slowing the puck down. Eventually, it squirted lose to Kane below the goal line, but he had the presence of mind to slip it past goaltender Tuukka Rask, from a difficult angle. Toews created the opening for Kane, by setting a pick of sorts on the Bruins' Milan Lucic, who was the closest defender to the play.
"Except for last game, it's been a pretty low-scoring series, so as soon as you get a goal, it's a big advantage," said Blackhawks defenceman Niklas Hjalmarsson. "It's not a coincidence that Kaner makes the big goals. He wants the puck when it comes down to the wire. He's a difference-maker."
Kane's second goal came after linemate Bryan Bickell retrieved his own rebound, circled the net and got it out in front of Kane. Kane steadied the bouncing puck and lifted it past Rask, a real goal-scorers goal.
Without Bergeron in the second period, Boston looked beaten down, but they had a good shift early in the third which ended when Chara blasted a shot past Blackhawks' goaltender Corey Crawford, who faced few chances of any consequence until the third period. The Bruins had talked about wanting to exploit Crawford's glove hand because they'd gotten a few past him on that side in the previous game, but never really did enough opportunities in tight to test him there.