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Central: Talent, karma combine to spark Kane's hot start

by Larry Wigge /

Chicago Blackhawks' Patrick Kane celebrates with teammate Duncan Keith after scoring a goal against the Colorado Avalanche Oct. 19, 2007.
Someone from Denver made the suggestion that maybe Patrick Kane’s first NHL goal -- coming against the Colorado Avalanche on Oct. 13 -- might be one of those Friday the 13th lucky omens for the kid from Buffalo.

The train of thought that followed just might make some sense, however.

It was, after all, a few days after the Chicago Blackhawks made the 5-foot-10, 163-pound Kane the first pick overall in the 2007 Entry Draft that he was asked to throw out the first pitch at Wrigley Field ... in a Cubs-Colorado Rockies game. After that pitch, the Cubs and Rockies both caught fire and made great runs to the playoffs -- and the Rockies just happen to be in the World Series right now.

So maybe that first goal by Kane in a Chicago-Denver rematch Oct. 13 might bring Kane a little luck as well.


Kane had two assists to go along with his first NHL goal (not counting a shootout goal earlier in the season that led to a Blackhawks’ victory against Detroit), and, one night later, followed that with two assists in a 6-4 triumph at Toronto. Three nights after that, he added two more goals and two more assists against Columbus.

Three goals and six assists and the No. 1 star in three-straight games. So much for the theory that Patrick Kane’s diminutive size -- which wasn’t a factor while totaling 62 goals and 83 assists in just 58 games for London of the Ontario Hockey League last season -- might be a detriment playing against grown men in the NHL.

Folks, this kid is that good.

"I’ve been the little guy in a game of bigger guys all my life," Kane smiled, as if to say that he knows this is the NHL, but this is just the challenge he needs at this time in his young life. "I’m not going to change my game of trying to be assertive. I’m not taking anything from anybody."

He looked around the Blackhawks locker room and added: "We’ve got a few big guys in here who have my back if something happens."

Like a check from behind by Toronto’s 6-6, 230-pound Nik Antropov? Or a big hit from Boston’s 6-9, 250-pound Zdeno Chara? No problem.

"It's the size of his heart that's more important," Blackhawks General Manager Dale Tallon told me just after the draft in June. "Guys his size that play the perimeter, you have concerns about moving up to the next level; but Pat gets his nose dirty, gets into the traffic areas and he doesn't get knocked down. He has a solid, wide base for his size, and when he gets stronger it's going to be even more difficult to knock him down.

"It was at the World Junior tournament where we really saw how good he was. That's an under-20 tournament, and 18-year-olds usually struggle. But he was one of the best players and one of the youngest players over there. That spoke volumes."

Philadelphia Flyers GM Paul Holmgren agreed, saying; "I'm not sure his size is a factor, because of the way the game has changed in the NHL and small players with speed are excelling. In my opinion, he's a special player and is going to do just fine."

Another big reason for Kane’s readiness for the NHL is that four years ago, his parents allowed him to move from Buffalo to Michigan to live at former NHLer Pat Verbeek’s house and play in the Detroit Honeybaked hockey program. Verbeek, a 5-9 workaholic who spent 20 seasons in the NHL -- scoring lots of goals with plenty of grit -- relayed the importance of playing every shift like it's your last to his young boarder.

Obviously, that time in Michigan was time well spent. And neither his age nor his size can deter this man/child from succeeding in the NHL as a rookie -- like it didn’t deter him from leading all of junior hockey in scoring as a rookie last season.

"He's got great hands, great eyes and makes the players around him better," said Tallon. "He can really pass. He can also shoot and score."

This clearly is one of those special kids who thrive on challenges to show his skills and prove that size questions or not, that he can play with the big boys, er, men, in the NHL.

"That first goal really took a weight off my shoulders," Kane said. "I kind of took a giant deep breath after that and things have been back to normal for me."

As normal as things can get in a game where first-round picks, even first overall, step right off the amateur stage and shine a couple of levels up in the NHL.

Jonathan Toews celebrates with his teammates after scoring a goal against the Colorado Avalanche Oct. 19, 2007.
The insertion of young stars in progress like Kane and Jonathan Toews, Patrick’s linemate with Tuomo Ruutu (Toews was taken No. 3 overall in the 2006 draft, Ruutu No. 9 in 2001) give Blackhawks fans reason to start getting excited about hockey once again.

Jeremy Roenick, in Chicago recently with the San Jose Sharks, remembers when he vaulted from junior hockey to the NHL in a pressure-packed playoff series for the Blackhawks against St. Louis in 1989. He also remembers losing a tooth courtesy of Blues defenseman Glen Featherstone in that game.

"Chicago was great to me and the fans were hockey-mad," Roenick remembered. "It hasn’t been a hockey town for a while now. But I know people love hockey there and they are going to come back. Especially when they see what those kids Kane and Toews can do. They look like they’re for real to me."

Do these talented kids need omens like the Cubs-Rockies first pitch? Not at all. This injection of skill, talent and confidence is enough to turn the Blackhawks around.

But ...

"All I know," said Kane, "is I’d like that pitch back again."

No need. The pitch that Kane and Toews are making as early Rookie of the Year candidates is good enough for Blackhawks fans.

Around the Central Division -- Is Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Pascal Leclaire quickly gaining the reputation that so many great pitchers get, that if you don’t score early you won’t have a chance later? Well, Leclaire isn’t Josh Beckett just yet, but he has won all four games -- all by shutouts -- when opponents weren’t able to get to him early. Leclaire stopped 36 shots in blanking St. Louis, 3-0, Oct. 25. In his other two starts, Leclaire was scored on 6:17 into a game by Colorado’s Joe Sakic and 5:39 into a game against Vancouver by Ryan Kesler, and he lost both of those games. For the record, Marc Denis holds the club record of five shutouts in one season -- he did it twice (in 2002-03 and again the next season). ... Columbus’ 5-3-1 record represents the best start in franchise history. ... Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock would love nothing more than to beat Detroit, but he says he’ll take his chances against the rest of the Central Division in an attempt to get Columbus into the playoffs for the first time in the seven-season history of the franchise. Mark Hitchcock’s team down as 2-0 in that quest, following back-to-back victories against Chicago and St. Louis, Oct. 23 and 25. ...

Rick Nash
Rick Nash didn’t score his eighth goal last season until Dec. 10. This season, he did it in just nine games and quickly is re-establishing himself as perhaps the most dangerous young power forward in the game. Nash had an impressive nine shots on goal in Columbus’ 3-0 victory against St. Louis on Oct. 25. ... Young free-agent center Jiri Novotny, a former No. 1 pick by Buffalo in 2001, is starting to show the skills we predicted in the off-season as he scored two goals against Chicago and one more against St. Louis, giving him four goals in his last five games. ... More impressive about the Jackets is the play of their defense -- Adam Foote and Rusty Klesla playing more than 21 minutes a game and Ron Hainsey and newcomer Jan Hejda turning in 18-minute-per-game nights. Having that solid defense every night has pushed the Blue Jackets to first in the NHL in penalty killing. ... It’s not all Henrik Zetterberg in Detroit, it just seems that way sometimes, especially after seeing him score at least one point in each of Detroit’s first 10 games and lead the NHL in scoring. ... The most refreshing story on the Red Wings of late has been the play of 26-year-old former Grand Rapids (American Hockey League) captain Matt Ellis, who was recalled to Detroit after an injury to Johan Franzen earlier this season. All this career minor leaguer has done is score points in four straight games, including the game-winning goal against San Jose on Oct. 18. Scouts always said he didn’t skate well enough to play in the NHL. But after four seasons at Grand Rapids, Ellis may have forged a place for himself in the Detroit lineup for good with his grit and tenacity in all of the tough traffic areas. ... For those who doubted how much of an impact defenseman Brian Rafalski would make in Detroit, look at the start he’s had -- two goals and eight assists in 10 games. At his best, Rafalski never was close to a point-per-game pace in New Jersey -- it was 55 points with the Devils last season. ... Six goals in his first seven games makes Brad Boyes one of those juicy what-were-the-Boston Bruins-thinking questions when they traded him to St. Louis for unimpressive young defenseman Dennis Wideman last season after Boyes had scored 26 goals as a rookie in 2005-06. After being drafted by Toronto 24th overall in the 2000 Entry Draft, Boyes was sent to San Jose in a deal for Owen Nolan. Then he went to Boston for defenseman Jeff Jillson. The Blues aren’t asking questions about why it took Boyes 29 games to score six goals last season after seeing him get four in 19 games last season and the quick-six this season playing on the team’s No. 1 line with Paul Kariya and Keith Tkachuk. ... How much does Paul Kariya like to score against his old teams? Lots. Like one goal and six assists in the first three games he’s played against Anaheim, Colorado and Nashville this season. In his other five games, he had one goal and three assists. ... We like to talk about young players who seemingly came from nowhere to make a mark in the NHL. The Blues’ contribution this season is defenseman Steve Wagner, who went undrafted while showing pretty good puck skills at Minnesota State-Mankato. While getting a chance to stick in St. Louis due to early season injuries to defensemen Jay McKee, Eric Brewer and Erik Johnson, Wagner has made the most of his opportunity with one goal and three assists in seven games -- and, oh yes, an impressive two-way game as he led Blues defenders with a plus-4 rating. ... Looking for a veteran presence at center on their No. 1 line, the Chicago Blackhawks say their super kid line of Toews and Kane can succeed because of the presence of skilled veteran Robert Lang. His five goals in 10 games has been key, particularly with last season’s leading scorer, Martin Havlat, out nursing a shoulder injury. ...
Duncan Keith
Blackhawks defensemen clearly are becoming more comfortable moving into the offensive part of the game this season. Only Duncan Keith (two goals, 29 assists) and Brent Seabrook (four goals, 20 assists) had as many as 20 points last season. After nine games this season, Seabrook, Keith and newcomers Brent Sopel and Andrei Zyuzin were contributing offensively to the Chicago attack and are on pace to have at least 20 points this season. ... There haven’t been many high points for the in-limbo Nashville Predators this season. But when they scored the first goal against Atlanta on Oct. 25, they won 3-0, helping the Preds end a six-game losing streak (one short of the franchise record set in the team’s second season), and end a stretch in which they scored just one goal in three games. The victory also helped run Nashville’s record to 3-0 when the team gets the first goal. ... Dan Ellis pitched that shutout against the Thrashers in just his second NHL start, and first for the Predators. Ellis got the start after No. 1 goalie Chris Mason was replaced in two of his last four starts and three times in eight starts this season. ... Best news? The Predators got back to the work ethic this team was built on. With key scorers Jason Arnott, J.P. Dumont and Martin Erat held without a point for the fourth consecutive game, the Nashville goals came from unlikely sources – energy-line players Jerred Smithson, Jordin Tootoo and Scott Nichol. The hard-work, character theme carried throughout the lineup in this victory as the Preds blocked 18 shots in posting the win against Atlanta.

The week ahead -- It must be nice to have a veteran backup goaltender like Chris Osgood, who just happens to be 3-0 with a 1.67 goals-against average and .934 save percentage, to fill in on a three-game trip to Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary Oct. 28 through Nov. 1 while Dominik Hasek rests an irritated hip. ... How much do the Nashville Predators miss goaltender Tomas Vokoun? The Preds may get a chance to see their former No. 1 netminder Saturday, Oct. 27, when the Florida Panthers -- the team Vokoun was traded to in June -- come calling. ... The Blues and Minnesota Wild recently had sort of a war of words, with Wild enforcer Derek Boogaard and his possible attempts to injure St. Louis players and the Blues’ subsequent retaliation. The teams next face off Nov. 1 in St. Paul. Bottom line: Minnesota won three of four meetings between the teams last season and beat the Blues in St. Louis on Oct. 20.

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