SPORTS

Return of Kane for start of playoffs makes Blackhawks a Cup favourite

04/14/2015 12:49 EDT | Updated 06/22/2015 03:59 EDT
Andrew Shaw and his Chicago Blackhawks were determined to do everything they could to keep playing long enough for Patrick Kane to return from a broken clavicle.

Mission accomplished.

Kane was cleared for full contact Monday and is set to play in Game 1 of Chicago's first-round series against the Nashville Predators on Wednesday.

"Great to be back for the playoffs," Kane wrote on Twitter. "Thank you to all the great fans for the many well wishes over the last seven weeks!"

It's boost significant enough to make the Blackhawks one of the Stanley Cup favourites, if not put them atop that list.

"Kaner's Kaner — he's unbelievable," Shaw said late last month in Philadelphia. "He's one of the best guys on the power play, he's going to make plays even strength and he's going to play good defensively. He's one of those players that you can't replace."

The Blackhawks didn't "replace" Kane, per se, but when the all-star right-winger slammed into the boards Feb. 24 and was ruled out for at least the rest of the regular season, it may have been a blessing in disguise.

With Kane on long-term injured reserve, general manager Stan Bowman used the first wealth of salary-cap space he has had in quite some time to acquire centre Antoine Vermette and defenceman Kimmo Timonen at the trade deadline.

Chicago went 12-8-1 down the stretch without Kane, with four of those losses coming to close out the season after clinching a playoff spot. Captain Jonathan Toews said the Blackhawks had some experience to draw from playing without Patrick Sharp in November.

"We just find ways to adapt," Toews said. "You go across that lineup, the D-men that we have, guys that can score goals, guys that can produce and play two-way hockey. ... No one makes excuses in this room."

The Blackhawks are better at adapting without their best scorer than perhaps any team in the NHL, though the playoff-bound Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames did well without big pieces in Dustin Byfuglien and Mark Giordano, respectively.

One of the big keys is Chicago's depth, from the top line of Brandon Saad, Toews and Marian Hossa down to players like veteran Brad Richards and 20-year-old rookie Teuvo Teravainen.

"I think it's a special team," Vermette said. "If you look at the lineup, the individuals within this team is pretty impressive, a lot of great players. And I think the way that we approach the game with all the skills that this team, I think it's really checking first and being good defensively with great goaltending (and) defence is really solid. Then you've got all those skills up front, too."

The Blackhawks are so deep that it looks like Vermette could be a healthy scratch for Game 1. He was not on one of the four lines at practice Tuesday but isn't likely to sit for long.

No matter the lineup as the playoffs develop, coach Joel Quenneville said late last month that his Blackhawks were playing with a more defensive mind-set and a better team game. The hope is to find consistent offensive production and balance throughout.

"We still feel we can be better," Quenneville said.

How much better the Blackhawks can be with Kane back is a scary proposition for the Predators and the rest of the Western Conference.

"When he comes back, he's only going to make this team stronger," Saad said.

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