Time for Kane and Toews to go into the belly of the beast

Two years ago at this time, the Chicago Blackhawks were in a very similar position with their two stars struggling to get it done in the Stanley Cup final. So, maybe it’s time for the Blackhawks to go back to the same well, forego the matchup game and put Toews and Kane head-to-head against the likes of Hedman and Paquette.

CHICAGO – Two years ago right around this time, the Chicago Blackhawks found themselves in precisely the same position they found themselves today. Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara were doing to Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane exactly what Victor Hedman and Cedric Paquette are doing now.

The Blackhawks were down 2-1 to the Bruins in the 2013 Stanley Cup final, but managed to win the next three straight to take their second Stanley Cup. And the funny thing was that Toews and Kane began having success not because they avoided the matchups against the Bruins, but because they embraced them. Instead of avoiding Chara, the Blackhawks went right into the belly of the beast. They challenged Chara and wore him down. In the space of three games, they transformed Chara from a Conn Smythe Trophy candidate to a liability.

And it’s time to do the same now. Instead of trying to avoid going head-to-head with Paquette, perhaps it’s time for Toews to take up the challenge and try to beat him. Why? Because, with all due respect, he’s Jonathan Toews and the other guy is Cedric Paquette. How much longer can a young third-liner expect to outplay arguably the best two-way player in the world? Again, with all due respect, there’s no way Paquette should be the story of this series.

The Blackhawks are entirely capable of coming back in this series and winning. They know it, because they have done that so many times in the past. Since the 2010 playoffs when they won their first Stanley Cup, the Blackhawks have a very ordinary 26-25 record in Games 1 through 3. But they’re 35-11 in Games 4 through 7. So it’s not a stretch to suggest they’re saving their best for Game 4 Wednesday night.

“You’re not always going to be in complete control of a series,” Toews said. “We’ve been up in series, we’ve been down in some series, especially this year. Here we are down 2-1. I think we’re confident we can go out there and find a way to even it up tomorrow night.”

The Blackhawks have displayed a remarkable penchant for bouncing back strongly in the playoffs, particularly after sub-par performances. And nobody is going to have to do that more than Corey Crawford, who has not looked sharp the past two games. But like Toews and Kane, Crawford has been able to do a good job of putting his bad games in the past. That will have to be the case now as well.

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But Chicago’s defense corps, which has performed heroically and understaffed in these playoffs, also has to find a way to be better. The Lightning forwards have done an extremely good job of sneaking behind the Blackhawks defensemen and when the Lightning has a defenseman who can pass the puck as well as Hedman can, that can cause a world of problems. Perhaps the Blackhawks defensemen are starting to wear down a bit, perhaps they’re finding that they really can’t trust either Kyle Cumiskey or David Rundblad in these pressure situations.

And it won’t get any better if Johnny Oduya, who appears to be suffering from an upper-body ailment, is either unable to go or will have limited effectiveness. Oduya played sparingly in the second half of Game 3 and his status for Wednesday night is still uncertain.

“I think he’ll be all right,” Quenneville said of Oduya. “He looked all right today. We’ll see how he is (Wednesday).”

But so much of it comes back to Kane and Toews, who have just one assist between them in the first three games. Toews has eight shots on goal, Kane has six. But Toews, as has been the case in the past, has been targeted from a physical standpoint and has been taking a lot of abuse every time he goes near the Tampa net. Kane, meanwhile, is beginning to carry the puck with more authority, but has unable to get many zone entries with the speed he usually does. Hedman, who has done an outstanding job of getting his stick in the right places, has been a big reason for that.

“As long as we’re playing smart two-way hockey, were creating, bringing energy, eventually something’s got to tip,” Toews said of his and Kane’s fortunes. “I think that’s the way we’re looking at it right now. But I think as a team, we got a lot of guys who can contribute in that way. We’re confident that it doesn’t matter who scores the goals, we’re going to find a way to win as a team.”