By Bucky Gleason
News Sports Reporter
The change in tone was obvious back in January, when Patrick Kane arrived with a different attitude after taking a cold, hard look at himself and his career. He was coming off his worst season in the NHL. The lockout temporarily took away the game and led him to start the season in Switzerland.
Kane returned with the idea that he needed to maximize his skills. Despite five productive seasons and a Stanley Cup-winning goal already on his resume, Kane hinted that he had shortchanged himself and the Blackhawks last year. He realized he had more to offer, and it was time to get serious.
The South Buffalo native showed signs he had grown up after making too many headlines for the wrong reasons. He entered the season in top condition after finishing last season with 23 goals and 66 points, a subpar year by his standards and the lowest point total of his first five seasons.
“I owe it to myself and the organization to try to reach my full potential,” Kane told the Chicago Tribune at the time. “I just have to stay focused and keep enjoying every minute I’m on the ice. That’s what I’m trying to do this year.”
Kane’s evolution for years left fans conflicted about the immature person and the gifted player. He was only 21 years old when he scored the Stanley Cup winner in overtime in 2010, taking his place in sports history. He wasn’t quite sure how to handle fame and fortune that arrived when his career took off while still in its infancy.
His boyish behavior injected energy to his team and made him a lovable player when he was named the NHL’s top rookie. But there was the incident with the cab driver, the pictures of a shirtless Kane with women in a limousine, the party weekend in Wisconsin and whatever else Deadspin uncovered while seemingly tracking him 24/7.
Last season, there were rumblings that the Blackhawks had grown tired of the distractions and considered trading him.
All along, however, there was this undeniable fact: Kane was one heck of a player, a true star. Now, with a hat trick and series-clinching goal in overtime in the conference finals to beat the Kings, he’s playing the best hockey of his career.
The Blackhawks are back in the finals for the second time in four years. They will play the Bruins, who are looking for their second title in three years. Game One is tonight in the United Center (8, Chs. 2, 5), aka the Madhouse on Madison. Kane is certain to be at the center of attention yet again, this time for all the right reasons.
“It was an exciting game, for sure,” Kane said Tuesday of the clincher against Los Angeles. “I played well the game before and had some confidence from that. I wanted to play the same way, and it ended up working out that I scored three goals. It felt good to have the puck a lot those two games. I ended up getting rewarded for it.”
The series marks the first time since 1979 that two Original Six franchises played for the Cup, when the Canadiens beat the Rangers in five games.
The Blackhawks and Bruins haven’t met in the postseason since 1978, when Boston swept Chicago. The Bruins have beaten the Blackhawks in five of six postseason series.
Kane isn’t the only Western New Yorker to play a big role in Chicago’s success. General Manager Stan Bowman was forced into making major changes after winning it all in 2010. The ’Hawks have only eight players on the roster who appeared in the final against the Flyers, which ended when Kane scored in double overtime.
The Bruins, nearly eliminated in the first round by Toronto, have come together much the way they did when winning the Cup over Vancouver in 2011. Boston rolled over Pittsburgh in four games, outscoring the speedy Penguins, 12-2. The Bruins had everything working in unison in the conference finals.
“It’s a team that’s very good,” Kane said. “They’re a five-man unit. You see five guys in the picture all the time. You can’t have too many turnovers against any of their lines because they’re so good in transition. It’s going to be a tough series.”
Kane will have an impact on the series one way or another. He had just one assist to show for the first three games against the Kings, a lack of production that drew the attention of Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville. Kane responded with four goals in the final two games, none bigger than the last one and enough to transform him into a kid again.
He’s coming off his best year with 23 goals and 55 points in the shortened season, which projected to career highs of 39 goals and 93 points in 82 games. His season came after a quiet summer away from the ice. It came after he showed up ready to play. It came after he realized he had barely tapped into his potential.
Finally, he’s as mature as his game.
“We’ll see what happens throughout the series,” he said. “I’m happy where I am right now.”
Here’s a closer look at the two teams:
Chicago (1) vs. Boston (4)
Blackhawks update: They earned a point in each of the first 24 games, an NHL record, en route to the Presidents’ Trophy. Patrick Sharp has eight goals in 17 playoff games after scoring six times in 28 games during the regular season. He and Marian Hossa (seven goals) are tied for the team lead with 14 points. Big forward Bryan Bickell had three goals and seven points against the Kings. He has eight postseason goals after scoring nine in 48 games before the playoffs. Their defense is deep and talented, which helps explain how Chicago killed off 55 of 58 penalties (94.8 percent) in the playoffs. Chicago’s blend of size, skill and speed makes it better equipped to handle Boston’s aggression than Pittsburgh did.
Bruins update: Goaltender Tuukka Rask (1.75 GAA, .943 playoffs) has been the best player in the postseason. His saves look routine because he’s so far ahead of the play, which he needs to sustain. David Krejci leads the postseason in scoring with nine goals and 21 points. He’s playing the way he did in 2011, when he had 12 goals and 23 points en route to the Cup. Nathan Horton had eight points (three goals) in four games before being held scoreless in the final two against Pittsburgh. He’s plus-21 in 17 games. Jaromir Jagr still hasn’t scored in the postseason, but he was effective against Pittsburgh. The Bruins are dangerous because they’re balanced, and they’re getting production from almost everyone. Tyler Seguin (one goal, four points) needs to wake up.
Outlook: The Bruins effectively shut down Pittsburgh’s stars, but Chicago has more beef up front and is better on the back end. The home team has an 18-6 record this year in postseason overtime games. It figures to be a tight series. Blackhawks in seven games.