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Hawks need more from their big line

by John Dellapina
PHILADELPHIA -- Jonathan Toews, following a silly superstition that was established by a Philadelphia Flyer for goodness sake, refused to touch the Clarence Campbell Bowl 11 days ago. But then, back then, it seemed only the mere formality of playing out the four victories in the Final stood between the Chicago Blackhawks' captain and hoisting a couple of pieces of more coveted hardware -- the Conn Smythe Trophy and the Stanley Cup.

Toews was leading the postseason in scoring. He was winning just about every face-off he took. He was winning many more battles than he lost along the walls. His decision-making was impeccable. Heck, they dressed the Michael Jordan statue at the entrance to the United Center a Toews jersey. Presumably, the photo for the Wheaties box already had been chosen.

The only question was whether he would appear alone in that picture or in the middle of wingmen Patrick Kane and Dustin Byfuglien, whom he was pivoting on the most dominant, most entertaining, most relentless line this spring had seen.

Then, the Stanley Cup Final began.

Game 1: An 11-goal pond hockey affair. The Byfuglien-Toews-Kane unit registers no points, five shots and a minus-9 in a statistical abomination that pretty accurately reflects the line's impact.

Game 2: Things tighten up and Byfuglien's neutral-zone interception and relay to Ben Eager leads to the game-winning goal. Toews is a dominant 15-9 on faceoffs and the trio is plus-2. Still, high-visibility shifts are few and far between.

Game 3 – A very happy-medium game in which there is enough scoring, hitting and thrills for everybody. But only one goal is produced by Chicago's Big Three: A Kane breakaway goal off a Toews pass that gives the Hawks their only lead of the game. Byfuglien is assessed two penalties of the undisciplined nature and the Flyers' power play punishes the second with a goal.

No, the Byfuglien-Toews-Kane line has not been dreadful. Nor has it been completely invisible. But through three games of this Final, it simply hasn't been what it had been through the first three rounds. Which is to say, justification enough to plunk down the cash for the ticket and reason enough to sit up straight and pay attention every time they come over the boards.

Predictably, the Blackhawks tried to project a lack of concern following their afternoon meeting at the Wachovia Center on Thursday when asked about the closeness of this series so far, having had their seven-game playoffs winning streak snapped in Game 3, and the ineffectiveness of the Toews' line.

"I think Johnny's line has gotten better each game of the series," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "They were more dangerous last night be it off the rush.  Had more puck time.  I would expect them to continue to improve the way he has throughout his career."

They had better get better -- because the Flyers, even without their top line firing, appear to have more offensive players at or near the top of their games right now. Daniel Briere continues to score. Ville Leino and Claude Giroux are having breakout postseasons, and Scott Hartnell is rediscovering his rambunctious game after a disappointing season.

"I think Johnny’s line has gotten better each game of the series. They were more dangerous last night be it off the rush.  Had more puck time.  I would expect them to continue to improve the way he has throughout his career."
-- Chicago coach Joel Quenneville

As for Philly's No. 1 line, wingers Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter have pretty good excuses for not filling the net: both suffered broken feet in these playoffs. The Blackhawks' top liners have no such injuries to blame – at least none that anybody knows about.

So where is the dancing, puck-possession game from Kane that drove Vancouver and San Jose defensemen to distraction? Where is the burly work in the slot from Byfuglien that simply caved in the Canucks and Sharks? Where is the all-around brilliance from Toews that figured to add a playoff MVP to the Most Outstanding Forward designation he was awarded at the Vancouver Olympics?

If "Chris Pronger has nullified them" is the answer to all those questions, then this Chicago trio isn't the overwhelming force that it seemed through three rounds.

"We'll give him credit," Toews said of Pronger, the Flyers' towering defenseman. "We'll give their players credit for playing well defensively against some of our top players.  But it's always been about us and been about how we can play better.  That doesn't change this Series.

"Myself personally, (there are) so many more things I want to do, I want to accomplish and ways I want to contribute.  Keep working hard and knowing that nothing is going to be easy.  It will be much more enjoyable when things go your way knowing you worked extra hard for it."

Kane, who was similarly uninspiring through the early round-robin games of the Olympic tournament before busting out, said it's all about the Blackhawks remembering that they were one of the elite teams in the NHL all season and the most impressive team through the first month and a-half of the playoffs.

"I think sometimes, we're probably standing around a little bit with the puck," he said. "If we can move our feet and play a fast-tempo game the way we have all year, that bodes well for us because, you look at all our players, we're all pretty fast. We can use that, particularly against big defensemen.

"We can't play tentative. We've got to move our feet and be confident with the puck. We've got to play with confidence. Our team has so much speed and skill and our team game has been so good all year, we have to be a confident group."

Presumably, the Blackhawks' confidence would soar if their top line did. Perhaps Game 4 is the one in which it finally does. The one in which Byfuglien, Toews and Kane get back to playing the game in withering waves that can't be stopped and shouldn't be missed.

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