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Toews-Kane tandem comfortable fit for Blackhawks

by Brian Hedger / Chicago Blackhawks
Toews' goal early in the first period in Game 3 held up as the game winner. (Chase Agnello-Dean/Chicago Blackhawks)

CHICAGO -- Playing forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane together has become like pulling out a trusty, comfortable pair of slippers for Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville.

Their chemistry, developed over seven years together with the Blackhawks, allows Quenneville the freedom to tinker with his line combinations. He can seek more balance by putting them on different lines, but if that doesn't work he can always pull those slippers out anytime he wants.

"We're fortunate with the lineup that we have a lot of flexibility," Quenneville said Tuesday. "Sometimes, whether it's in a series or in games, sometimes we don't have that patience to wait around to see how it's going to work long-term."

That's exactly what has happened in a tight Western Conference First Round series between the Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues, who lead the best-of-7 series 2-1 heading into Game 4 Wednesday at United Center (9:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS, FS-MW, CSN-CH).

Toews centered the top line to start the series, as usual, but Kane played right wing on the third line in the first two games after missing about a month at the end of the regular season with a lower-body injury believed to be a knee sprain.

The logic was to put some offensive firepower and grit onto each of the top three lines, but it didn't work the way Quenneville hoped. His defensemen outscored the forwards and St. Louis outshot Chicago in two stinging overtime defeats at Scottrade Center. The Blackhawks came into Game 3 on Monday in a 2-0 hole, and Quenneville started pondering his options.

After using the same lines during warm-ups that finished Game 2, with Kane still on the third line, Quenneville reached under the proverbial bed to find that familiar, comfortable fit to start the game. He moved Kane back up with Toews and left wing Bryan Bickell before puck drop, a combination that worked great in Chicago's championship run last season. Less than five minutes into Game 3, the Blackhawks had their first 1-0 lead of the series.

Toews scored with a wrist shot from the top of the left circle at 4:10 of the first period, and that wound up being enough in a gritty 2-0 victory sealed by Marcus Kruger's empty-net goal in the final minute.

Combined with Toews' perfect stretch pass to Kane for a breakaway goal late in the first period of Game 1, it's easy to see why the Blackhawks are preparing to break the bank in order to keep Kane and Toews away from the free-agent market when their identical contracts expire after the 2014-15 season.

"There's just lots of confidence there," Toews said of Kane. "I think we know what to expect. We know that every shift we go out there that we can get that puck possession and create stuff, and the more we create the more it's going to go in. We got one early [in Game 3] and didn't find a way after that, but we still had some great chances."

Kane agreed.

"That’s something, when you kind of grow up with someone and you're together for this long and know someone for this long, I think it helps when you play with each other on the ice," he said. "Our first few years, it seems like we played together a lot. Lately, not as much, but still, when you get together you try to figure out what was successful when you did play together and try to use that when you're on the ice together."

Their success, along with Bickell (eight hits), was probably no surprise to Quenneville, who also has a couple other "comfy slipper" combinations. For much of this regular season, Chicago's top line of left wing Patrick Sharp, Toews and right wing Marian Hossa was one of the most productive in the NHL.

Quenneville broke that one up shortly after Hossa was injured March 1 at Soldier Field in the final game of the 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series, a 5-1 victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins. He hasn't gone back to it since, but it's still there if he ever needs it.

So is the combination of Sharp, Toews and Kane as a top line, which produced a lot of offense in recent seasons. That's the luxury of having several elite forwards in the mix.

"I didn't mind the balance on the other lines, as well," Quenneville said of Game 3. "I thought it was a tight game. We know playing St. Louis there's not a lot of scoring chances. There's not a lot of room. There's not a lot of space. I think [you've] got to be willing to play a tight game, but those guys [Kane and Toews] can generate a bit more. Hopefully, whether that's going to be our productive line or key line offensively, our other lines are entitled to get some offense as well."

Quenneville said it's very likely Toews and Kane will start out Game 4 on the same line, which would make Kane happy. He's starting to get his timing back after the injury and has that proven chemistry with Toews to rely upon.

"I feel like on the offensive side, we both do some different things, but both try and read the game the same way, to the point where we're getting chances offensively," Kane said. "[Monday] night we had a few chances that it would have been nice to bury, especially some that he gave me. It would be nice to have those back, but hopefully, as we get some more chemistry, we're able to bury those and take advantage of our opportunities."

If not, look for the Quenneville to try out some new slippers.

"I think as you go through a series you look for things that might possibly work," he said. "I know [Toews] would like to play with [Kane], and we like that balance that it presents when they're apart. Sometimes in a course of a series you try it."

Clearly, this is one of those times.

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