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Kane proving himself as one of NHL's most consistent goal scorers

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber /

With nine goals already in 15 games this season, it's easy to say that Evander Kane is in the midst of the most productive stretch of his career. He's on pace to shatter the career-high 30 goals he scored at age 20 back in 2011-12, and he's three goals ahead of any other Sabre this season. 

Any evaluation of Kane's current run, however, should start on Dec. 3, 2016. That's when he scored his first goal of last season, after cracked ribs forced him to miss all of October and then lingering discomfort kept his name off the score sheet for all of November.

Since scoring in the third period of that game against Boston, Kane has been among the NHL's most consistent goal scorers. His 37 goals in that span tie him for fourth in the NHL, six behind Nikita Kucherov's league-leading mark of 43. His 30 goals at even strength ranks second to Auston Matthews. 

The key to the carry over, he said, is simple.

"It's the first time in four years I've played the first 15 games," Kane said. 

Video: Sabres Now (11/9/17)

The ironic part is, Kane's never considered himself to be injury-prone. He describes his past ailments as "freak accidents," be it the crash into the boards that cracked his ribs on opening night last season or the awkward plays that left him with a pair of torn MCLs in seasons prior. 

Kane said last season that, as good as he felt on his way to a 28-goal campaign, it wasn't the first time he had felt that good on the ice. He'd done it in stretches before, it's just that injuries had always seemed to get in the way of putting things together for a full season.

While there is a lot of season left to play, his health thus far has translated to results. At his current pace, he'd score 49 goals in 82 games. 

"I want to prove that I'm an elite player in this league," he said. "You can't just do it for one year, you've got to continue to do it year after year."

Being on the ice consistently has helped, but so has being on the ice with the same center. Kane has played this season almost exclusively on a line with Jack Eichel, and both players have said that their chemistry is at an all-time high.

Chemistry is particularly important with a pair of players like Eichel and Kane, both of whom have unique tendencies that come along with their offensive ability. Kane literally shoots more than any player in the league; his 304 shots since Dec. 3 of last season ranks atop the NHL.

Eichel, meanwhile, can make feeds that few other players in the NHL can. His passes can be so deceptive, in fact, that being on the other end of them can take some getting used to. 

"He does such a good job of faking other guys out, sometimes he fakes his own linemates out," Kane said. "He fakes me out. I'm like, 'Oh, I thought you were going to pass that so I went to that hole,' then he hangs onto it or he toe drags a guy. So I think it's just the timing. That's probably the biggest thing we're trying to work on. I think the more we play, the more we're going to trust each other on the ice."

Their most recent connection, against Washington on Tuesday night, came on a designed faceoff play. Eichel was never supposed to "win" the draw, at least by traditional standards. Rather, the puck was supposed to go straight back, with Eichel racing around his opponent in the faceoff circle to retrieve it.

On this occasion, the puck went deeper than expected, but Eichel made a play along the end boards nonetheless to steal possession and make a quick feed to Kane in front of the net.

Video: WSH@BUF: Kane buries Eichel's behind-the-net pass

"We had one earlier in the year that I didn't execute. He executed, but I didn't finish it off," Kane explained. "I was kind of surprised it was so clean. But that one he kind of just stuck with it, obviously he lifted the guy's stick, made a nice play out to me and I was able to finish it."

Kane is due to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, but he insists he hasn't allowed his contract status to get into his head. Whether you believe him or not, he says, the fact of the matter is that he's happy in Buffalo and the rest of it simply doesn't bother him.

He's certainly made a strong impression on Phil Housley, who said that Kane's been a leader by example since the start of training camp.

"I think he's just a true competitor," Housley said. "He approaches the game the right way, and he can score goals too. He's a gritty guy who goes to areas that a lot of people don't go to and I really like when he brings a physical element to his game. He's been really, really consistent this year."

But for as much as Kane wants to prove himself as an elite player in the NHL, there's one other achievement that has eluded him thus far in his career: a postseason berth. Kane said last season that he's always thought of himself as a playoff player, he just hasn't had the opportunity to prove it.

There's no question that, in that regard, the start to the Sabres' season hasn't gone as planned. But Kane said Thursday that under Housley, and with wins in two of their last three games, he feels the team is trending in the right direction.

"Phil's an honest guy. He wants to win," Kane said. "Right now, we're building towards doing that consistently. I think it's been a work in progress so far but I think we all see - as a group in here and as a coaching staff - the potential. We're kind of on the cusp of breaking through that barrier."


A change on the power play

Following a 0-for-4 night against Washington, the Sabres' power play is now 1-for-25 in their last eight games. Housley has continued to tinker with his units accordingly, which on Thursday included moving Kane to the top unit along with Eichel, Kyle Okposo, Ryan O'Reilly and Marco Scandella.

"Our power play isn't where it should be," Housley said. "We've had periods where we've had units that were here last year, and it just isn't working. We're just trying to give it some new flavor, give Evander some more time on the power play. I think in that middle spot, he's a threat to score."


Update on Rasmus Ristolainen

Housley said that defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, previously referred to as day-to-day with an upper-body injury, is now considered week-to-week. Ristolainen has missed the last two games after sustaining his injury in Arizona on Nov. 2.

The Sabres do have some reinforcements coming on defense. Both Josh Gorges and Nathan Beaulieu skated with the team for the third straight day on Thursday, and Housley said that both players are close to making a return to the lineup.

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