By Chris Emma-
CHICAGO (CBS) — Patrick Kane slouched over in a ready position, with his stick crossed on his knees. A pass came, and the Blackhawks winger unleashed a slapshot, then repeated it on the next two passes.
Nothing but the back of the net.
As Kane circled away from the net at Johnny’s Icehouse on Monday, he unleashed an audible “Oh, yeah!” All that was missing was I’m back, baby!
Not quite seven weeks removed from surgery to repair a broken left clavicle — and about five weeks shy of the Blackhawks’ generous initial 12-week recovery timetable — is Kane really back as the playoffs open Wednesday evening?
“I don’t really know yet,” Kane said.
The word from Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, when asked directly about a return for Kane in Game 1 at Nashville, was, “He could.”
Perhaps a more telling sign came on Monday evening when the Blackhawks announced Kane had been medically cleared for full participation by team physician Dr. Michael Terry, yet another sign of a potential return for Kane in Game 1.
With every slapshot, wicked wrister and stick-dangling dazzle, the answer seemed apparent. Oh, yeah! In practicing fully Monday, Chicago’s star winger was back to form with the second line, joining center Brad Richards and left wing Kris Versteeg.
Two days before the playoff opener against the Predators, the Blackhawks look like the Blackhawks again.
Through the struggles of a four-game losing streak, amid the uncertainty of an inconsistent season, one truth holds: Chicago can celebrate with with the Stanley Cup once again this summer with Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook in top form.
As the Blackhawks skated Monday, many on hand pondered whether this team could do what was accomplished in 2010 and 2013 in winning a title. At the same time, Bovada unveiled its Stanley Cup odds, and the Blackhawks are second at 8-to-1 (the New York Rangers are the favorite at 11-2) and the favorites to win the Western Conference.
Truth be told, many local followers of hockey aren’t fair to the Blackhawks’ present because they’re caught comparing the now to 2010 and 2013, rather than how this Chicago team fits in the current NHL landscape.
This NHL is as wide open as ever, and the Cup could be won by just about anybody in the bracket. Two of the four previous champions, the Los Angeles Kings (winners in 2012 and 2014) and Boston Bruins, failed to reach this postseason. Each was still dangerous enough to do damage if they’d made it.
The other team in the group of champions since 2010 can be found in Chicago, and the Blackhawks are considered a favorite now.
“This team has good of a chance as anyone else,” Blackhawks defenseman Kimmo Timonen said. “When this team plays really well, we’re hard to beat.”
The Blackhawks’ biggest questions revolve around — what else is new? — the power play, whether there’s enough depth on the blue line and if goalie Corey Crawford can be clutch. These surround a team built on puck possession and front-line speed.
What gets lost amid the stress of a slump and the grueling, tiresome 82-game season is that the Blackhawks’ greatest team strength — their greatest advantage against any team in the Stanley Cup Playoff — is the skill of Toews, Hossa, Sharp and, most importantly, Kane.
Without Patrick Kane, the Blackhawks simply aren’t the same team. Chicago won 12 of its 21 games without its All-Star winger but scored two goals or fewer in two-thirds of those contests. To put it in perspective, Toews is the team’s leader in points with 66 in 81 games. Kane is second with 64 points in 61 games.
The potential is in place for Kane to be back in the lineup Wednesday. All indications from practice Monday were that he could be skating with that second line, making a difference for Chicago.
If Kane is able, and a championship core is clicking, can the Blackhawks win the Cup?
As Kane would say, Oh, yeah.
Follow Chris on Twitter @CEmma670.