Ben Smith doesn’t mind that he won’t play as many big minutes once the playoffs start, because the Chicago Blackhawks are getting Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane back.
“We need them,” Smith said. “That’s the big thing. But it’s nice for some guys to get a little more confidence playing in different situations, and that’ll only be a help moving forward as they come back.”
Without having star forwards Toews and Kane for the end of the regular season, the Blackhawks leaned more heavily on the likes of Smith, Jeremy Morin and Joakim Nordstrom. When the puck drops for Game 1 Thursday night in St. Louis it’s likely two of those three players won’t be in the lineup.
Integrating Toews and Kane back into the swing of things is a unique challenge for Chicago as it tries to become the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup champion since Detroit in 1997 and 1998.
“To get them fully rested and close to 100 per cent is important,” winger Bryan Bickell said last week in Washington. “I’m sure they’re going to be a step behind, but I’m sure those two players, especially, they’re not going to lose it as quickly as some guys like me.”
Even if Toews and Kane are a step slow out of the gate, there’s no doubt the Blackhawks are much better with them than without them.
“Certainly it upgrades our skill level, talent level,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “These guys are top players and they’re accustomed to playing on the big stage and in big moments. … I think that it gives you a lot more options as a coach knowing these guys are returning to your lineup.”
The options are there because Chicago’s young players showed they could handle bigger roles while Kane missed the last 12 games and Toews the last six of the regular season. Smith said it was exciting to get more opportunities than they would have otherwise, and Bickell has been impressed with what Morin, Nordstrom and Smith were able to do with them.
“They give us a spark,” he said. “They’re bringing a lot of energy to the game and to the dressing room, even just to have some fun. I think when we play loose as a team, we play better hockey. If we’re all uptight and getting frustrated and things like that, we kind of get away from our game.”
The Blackhawks’ game is depth, depth and more depth. Toews, Kane and fellow star forward Patrick Sharp could all start on different lines, with Brandon Bollig, Marcus Kruger and Smith representing the energy down the lineup.
“I think in their absence we’ve tried to have some familiarity with a couple guys on each line where our continuity is kind of in place, and whether we’re moving guys around as the playoffs evolve will remain to be seen,” Quenneville said. “But certainly we expect these guys to be coming in at a high rate right off the bat, and I’m sure their linemates will love the opportunity to be playing with those guys in either situation, whether they’re together or not.”
Toews and Kane are two of eight players who were around for the 2010 and 2013 Cups, and they’re expected to lead the way if the Blackhawks make another run.
But Chicago isn’t a two- or three-player team, something that was made clear when Toews and Kane were out. Having playoff experience and depth breeds plenty of confidence in the locker-room.
“We know what it’s about at this time: how deep you are, and that kind of shows through that we have a lot of lines, a lot of guys that can score,” defenceman Johnny Oduya said. “That’s how we want to approach it.”
But the Blackhawks are not dwelling too much on making some history by repeating.
“Obviously you’re thinking about repeating, but this is a new year,” Bickell said. “You’re just doing what every team at the start of the season wanted to do is to win. It’d be nice to repeat, and we’re going to give one of a hell shot to try to do it.”
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