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Hawks shut down Panthers in 3-1 win

by Brian Hedger
CHICAGO – The pretty stretch pass that Patrick Kane snapped off to set up a breakaway goal for Jonathan Toews was nice, but the wrist shot that he zipped past Florida Panthers goalie Jose Theodore on Friday night brought an even bigger smile.

It also brought Kane some needed relief after a seven-game goal-less drought had him feeling down and starting to wonder about his luck. The goal was just the 11th of the season for Kane, but it provided a nice three-goal cushion for his Chicago Blackhawks in a game they won 3-1 at the United Center in a game that was delayed by about 30 minutes because of bad weather.

"It was a good feeling," Kane said of his goal. "I kind of forgot how to celebrate to be honest with you. I didn’t even know what I was doing, but it was good to put one in for sure."

Kane’s two-point night was his first multi-point game since Dec. 5 against the Phoenix Coyotes. Despite playing well in the past couple of games, you could tell his lack of statistical production was gnawing at him.

"It’s been a tough month or two, as far as playing hockey," Kane told "Things really haven’t kind of clicked and it gets even more frustrating sometimes when you’re playing well and it’s not clicking. It seems like it was a long time coming, but I’m happy to get one tonight. Hopefully I’ll start heating up here."

It probably helped that Florida has five former Blackhawks on the roster – including four who helped Kane, Toews and Chicago’s "core group" that remains hoist the 2010 Stanley Cup. Rather than slogging through another game against just any old team in the middle of a snowstorm, the Hawks had a little fun in a game that was probably sprinkled with good-natured chirping from both benches.

The fact they did it at the expense of those former teammates and the Panthers (21-15-10) didn’t matter much to the Hawks (29-13-6) – who improved to 19-5-4 on home ice and won their third straight game. Chicago is 4-0-2 in its last six games following an ugly three-game losing streak.

Ray Emery had to make only 18 saves to get the win for the Hawks, who head to Nashville for a tough back half of a back-to-back on Saturday night. If this game helped kick start the offensive engine for Kane that could be another big boost.

"I think goal scorers and guys who are top producers, that’s what it’s all about," coach Joel Quenneville said of Kane finally having some fun playing hockey again. "They look forward to playing well, and they measure their play in performance by their production. When it’s as dry as it was [for Kane], sometimes it can compound itself and it plays on your mind. But I thought the trend he’s had in the last [two or three games], you know he’s due. He was doing the right things, and I think that’s why it’s turning positive."

Toews keeps doing all the right things, as well. He scored a goal for the fourth straight game and continued a torrid scoring pace since star forward Patrick Sharp went down with an upper-body injury on Jan. 8 against Detroit [5 goals and 3 assists). Duncan Keith as also been hot lately and broke a long goal-less drought of his own with his third goal of the season with just 17 seconds left in the first.

Keith hadn’t scored since Nov. 13 against Edmonton, a span of 29 games, and his power-play point shot past Theodore gave Chicago a 2-0 lead after the first 20 minutes. His goal came 2:03 after Toews scored his 27th of the season to get the scoring started.

Meanwhile, Florida (21-15-10) is winless in eight straight road games and will fly to Winnipeg either late Friday or early Saturday for another chance to break that skid on Saturday night. The Panthers, whose goal came from Jason Garrison’s point blast early in the third period, are winless in four straight games and are just 1-3-3 in 2012.

"For the most part, I think we didn’t play a full game and I think we all know that," said Florida forward Jack Skille, who was traded from the Hawks to the Panthers as a rookie last season. "It’s going to be interesting to see our response (Saturday) night."

It might’ve been the late start, but neither team really got off to a fast start. After almost 18 minutes of evenly-played hockey, the Hawks erupted for two quick goals by Toews and Keith late in the first to take a 2-0 lead into the first intermission break.

A great save by Emery led to Toews’ goal. Viktor Stalberg collected the puck in the corner of the defensive zone and slid a cross-ice pass to Kane – who snapped off a quick pass to Toews at the Florida blue line for a breakaway. Toews buried it on the backhand with 2:20 left in the opening period.

Keith then launched his blast from the left point that got past Theodore on the far side for a 2-0 lead.

Neither team could get the puck in the net through more than half of the second before Kane finally rifled a laser from near the right faceoff dot past Theodore after a slight pass fake for second point of the game.

That gave the Hawks a 3-0 lead heading into the third period and significantly tilted the ice in their favor – considering their 20-0-2 record when leading after two periods. Garrison's 13th of the season 43 seconds into the third cost Emery his shutout, but the Panthers mounted little consistent pressure for the rest of the game.

The win moved the Hawks into first place in the overall standings, at least for one night -- as Chicago leapfrogged Detroit and St. Louis in the Central Division standings.

Quenneville expects a tight race the rest of the way.

"I’d expect it from here on out, because of the team’s we’re talking about," he said. "St. Louis has improved this year and they play a real tight, responsible game. Detroit’s always tough and Nashville is a playoff team and looking to push to the top of the [Central Division] and you know they’re not going away. So, let’s make sure that we take care of our own business."
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