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So there was Patrick Kane, the charismatic, young Chicago Blackhawks star, fielding questions from a gathering of reporters when an innocuous softball landed at his feet.

Kane was asked: Do his butterflies increase or decrease, knowing the Blackhawks are only two victories away from a Stanley Cup appearance, entering Friday's third game of the Western Conference final against the San Jose Sharks?

"To be honest with you, I haven't really had butterflies as far as playing the game," Kane answered so matter-of-factly and so without pretence that you knew it to be true.

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In that sentence there is a great deal of insight into what makes tick a player small (5 foot 10, 178 pounds) even by the new NHL standards, but who plays the game without fear of failure. Kane is called the Doctor by his teammates as an homage to his surgical precision in finding seams and open ice and acting as the catalyst on a line dominating the NHL playoffs at the moment (Kane, Jonathan Toews, Dustin Byfuglien).

Some see Kane as the pure definition of charisma, a good-looking young man, tousled hair growing long in a much-celebrated and much-discussed playoff mullet, always with a quip or a cute answer to any question that comes his way. On Thursday, he sat in full equipment for close to a half-hour answering every question that came his way and then - when excused by the PR staff - still found time to do a 1-on-1 with Cabral (Cabbie) Richards from The Score.

Others remember photos of postgame limo escapades and off-season brushes with Buffalo cab drivers, and think spoiled brat - someone that probably still has some growing up to do.

And maybe that's the right place to start, Kane's age: 21. Hard to believe he's already put in three full NHL seasons, won a Calder Memorial Trophy as the rookie of the year, and is now playing in his second Western Conference final with the Blackhawks.

Talk to Kane for any length of time and he leaves you with the impression he's more the former than the latter, a good kid that's made a few questionable off-ice choices in the past 12 months, but is maturing in a hurry. Certainly, what he's done in these playoffs, along with Toews, his primary sidekick, is put the Blackhawks in good position to win their first Stanley Cup since 1961.

Toews is the Joe Sakic clone, who makes smart plays in every situation and wins all those important faceoffs. Byfuglien is the burly, hard-to-move heavyweight, all muscle, occasionally awkward, the physical presence on the line. And Kane is the playmaker, the one who moves fluidly through every zone, effortlessly finding open ice where none exists.

In the series opener, it was Kane's smart quick pass after a faceoff win that gave Byfuglien the time he needed to overpower Sharks netminder Evgeni Nabokov for the game-winning goal. In the second game, two more quick Kane feeds set up the Blackhawks' two-goal outburst in a 90-second span that turned a 1-0 nail-biter in a routine 4-2 Chicago victory.

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"If you look at the duo of Kane and Toews, the reason they're so good is they complement each other so well," Blackhawks centre Patrick Sharp said. "Johnny likes to play physical and battle for pucks. He likes to go through you and come up with the loose pucks. Kaner is one of the best in the league at distributing it and finding his players. You throw in a big guy like Buff in, a smash-mouth type player, and it's a great line.

"It's funny to say that Pat Kane is maybe underrated right now as far as the attention, but maybe he likes it that way because he's playing some of his best hockey."

For his part, Kane doesn't think there's anything unusual about his lack of on-ice nerves.

"Even last year, there were no butterflies," he said. "It's just a fun opportunity to do this again. You play so much hockey, that's just the way you are. You're just more excited about the game and how you're going to play and what you're going to do out there and what you have to do out there. Maybe it's just a hockey player thing."

Maybe it is just that. And maybe this too is a hockey player think: As close as they are to playing in the final against an underdog from the Eastern Conference, Kane and his mates exude caution.

"It's a long season and a long ways to go and you can't think too far ahead," he said. "We want to play good at home and give the fans something to cheer on home ice. After that, we'll see what happens.

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"But," concluded Kane, eyes twinkling, briefly imagining what lies ahead, "it definitely does get exciting, knowing how close you are."

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