BOSTON - When Patrick Kane scored twice to help the Chicago Blackhawks move within one victory of another Stanley Cup, he did so on the sixth anniversary of being drafted first overall.
Players don't get selected there without skill, but the bulk of Kane's nine goals in the playoffs have been more a result of hard work and smart positioning by a player whose game has developed substantially in recent years.
"He's really good, especially around the net," Boston Bruins right-winger Brad Marchand said. "If you give him any kind of room down there and he can find the puck, then he's going to make something happen."
Kane showed three years ago during the Blackhawks' Cup run that he has a knack for making things happen and scoring big goals. But this time around it has been his ability to put back rebounds and loose pucks that earned him some late buzz for the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Six of Kane's nine goals through 22 games have come on the doorstep — either in the crease or just outside it. As his coach with the London Knights, Dale Hunter, watched his Game 5 performance, he remarked that Kane was having success because he was playing in traffic close to the net.
"He has no fear to his game. He's not the biggest guy in the world but he'll score goals and he'll go anywhere to score them," Hunter said in a phone interview Monday. "He has good vision. That's why he can go in them bad areas where you can take big hits, and he doesn't get hit often."
It's one thing to have good vision and yet another to make a concerted effort to be around the crease.
"I think one of the things on this team, you want to crash the net, whether it's bringing it back out and getting pucks there and then crashing it again," Kane said.
The 24-year-old brings a combination of skill and that willingness to play in tight spaces that makes him difficult to defend.
"I think he's not afraid, whether it's not afraid to get hit or not afraid to make mistakes," Boston defenceman Torrey Krug said. "He's not afraid to go to those high-traffic areas. That's important for a player, especially players that like to play with the puck, to not have the fear like that."
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville knows all about Kane's "high-end skill," but it's his ability to control the play with little room to manoeuvre that helps him stand out.
"He's just an unbelievable puck-handler, and I don't know if that's just natural talent or he's worked on it," Chicago defenceman Duncan Keith said.
Either way, it has caused fits for the Bruins. Coach Claude Julien and his team had to emphasize better awareness because of Kane.
"You look at the goals that Kane has scored, you've got to give him credit," Julien said. "He's done a good job of getting into those quiet areas and sliding into those pockets and the puck keeps coming to him, and that's what good players do. They find areas to go to where pucks come to them."
Of course Kane can still pick a corner and score. His goal on a two-on-one rush put the Blackhawks into the Cup final, and he scored one-on-one against Detroit Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard earlier in the playoffs.
Against the Bruins, Kane showed teammates that he's adept at scoring the so-called dirty goals, too. Julien likened him to Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby as far as being shifty and elusive around the net.
"He's an elite player," Bruins defenceman Andrew Ference said. "He's obviously got tremendous skill and speed to get away from defenders and to find open spots on the ice. He's a challenge for any team to defend against."
Even more so now than several years ago when he was a budding NHL star. Boston's Aaron Johnson played with Kane in 2008-09, and though he hasn't had a chance to study the right-winger's improvement, he pointed out that Kane has become a "solid hockey player."
That's not under-valuing Kane but rather an indication that, like other talented forwards, his career is an ongoing maturation process.
"I think it takes time because their whole life they haven't really needed to play that game," Johnson said. "And once you get to the NHL you have to learn that there's a time and place for certain moves and certain plays. It does take a year or two and a good coach to really embed that inside him."
It didn't start with Hunter, Denis Savard or Quenneville. Hunter knew Kane could score before the Knights drafted him. But the way he's been putting the puck in the net in the playoffs has Kane on another level.
"Every time there's more on the line, the more he comes up and goes in the dirty areas even more than he should because he wants to score the big goals," Hunter said. "He wants to make the difference in the game, and he has the ability to do it and he pushes himself in big games to do it."