|ESPN.com: NHL Playoffs 2010||[Print without images]|
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The best line in hockey is unstoppable right now.
Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Dustin Byfuglien are befuddling a very good San Jose Sharks team through two games of the Western Conference finals, just like a very good Vancouver Canucks team had no answer for the line in the previous round.
"Big Poppa" Byfuglien and "Captain Serious" Toews each scored Tuesday night, while "Doctor" Kane added a pair of assists as the Chicago Blackhawks disposed of the Sharks 4-2 to sweep the opening two-game set at HP Pavilion.
Anyone think the United Center might be a little loud Friday night? Oh my.
Imagine how dangerous this Hawks team might be if Marian Hossa and his $7.9 million salary decided to resume his playing career anytime soon? (OK, OK, Hossa did steal the puck from Niclas Wallin to set up Chicago's fourth goal 6:18 into the third period and seal Tuesday night's victory. But two goals in 14 postseason games doesn't cut it.)
Right now, it doesn't matter.
The Hawks have tremendous depth (case in point: Andrew Ladd scoring the opening goal from the third line Tuesday). But Toews' top line has largely been carrying the mail offensively. (The line, strangely enough, doesn't yet have a nickname, although Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith promised us Tuesday night he'd think of one over the next few days.)
"A lot of offense has just clicked," said Toews, sitting next to Kane on the news-conference podium. "Buff has been great on our line with Patrick and I since he's been playing with us. Whether it's on the power play or five on five, we're working hard. We're not taking any shortcuts for offense."
There has always been chemistry between Kane and Toews from the day they hit the NHL ice together three years ago. Finding a permanent third option has always been the problem. Troy Brouwer and Patrick Sharp have had successful stretches with the duo, but Byfuglien is arguably the best fit the Hawks have had there over the past few weeks.
"Yeah," Kane agreed after another big win. "Buff seems to be a playoff performer. It's exciting for us to play with him when he's getting a lot of pucks back."
Byfuglien is blossoming right in front of our eyes, a 260-pound monster who can beat you from 25 feet with a wicked shot when he isn't immovable in front of the net. He scored the game-winner in Game 1 on Sunday and was even more noticeable with a two-point night in Game 2, all while creating havoc in front of the net.
"I know they're looking over their shoulders wondering when I'm coming and where I am," said Byfuglien. "With Kane and Toews, they can't just worry about me, they also have to worry about those two guys. So it makes it fun to play and be out there with them."
It's hard to believe Byfuglien started the playoffs playing on defense because of the Hawks' injured lineup. Now he's a major part of the best forward line in the NHL.
"Buff, he seems really to come to the forefront in the playoffs," said Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville. "He was a big presence last year, influenced a couple series. He's been doing that in this playoff, as well. He's a big body, tough to move, tough to look around, see around. He's got a quick stick. I think he complements the other two guys with their playmaking ability, plays around the net. Buff seems to be the disrupter. His stick has been pretty dangerous."
On Tuesday night, one shift 6:59 into the second period exemplified the big line's lethal capabilities. Toews and Kane took turns holding onto the puck during a long cycling session, while Byfuglien comfortably stood in front of the net. Eventually, Kane zipped out from the corner with the puck, turned around at the top of the zone and sent a low wrist shot on net that "Big Poppa" deflected in for his sixth goal of the playoffs.
"I thought we could have done a much better job controlling his stick," said Sharks coach Todd McLellan, referring to Byfuglien. "You're not going to move that man. He's that big, that strong, he establishes himself. You better be able to control his stick. We failed to do that. Obviously, [that line] made a huge impact on the game."
That goal made it 2-0 Hawks, a tally that deflated the Sharks because it put San Jose in a bigger hole and because of the way the goal was scored: San Jose was not able to touch the puck while Toews, Kane and Byfuglien performed their magic.
"You know, it's nice to go to the net, have that success when [Buff is] creating, you know, a lot of traffic and good screens in front of the goaltender," said Toews. "Kane is out in the open ice, dangling around, while we're in front picking up the garbage. It's nice. We'll take them any way we can. Tonight we got a couple ugly ones in front of the net."
But, in the end, the biggest reason for this line's massive domination has been Toews, the 22-year-old captain raising his two-way game and lifting his teammates with him. We've seen it before, of course, on the biggest stage three months ago at the Olympics, where he was Team Canada's best forward. With Jaroslav Halak getting shellacked in his opening two games of the Eastern Conference finals, Mr. Toews is the obvious leading contender for the Conn Smythe Trophy as of right now. After his two points Tuesday, he now has an NHL-leading 23 postseason points.
"Sometimes as an offensive player, you're just feeling it," Kane said of Toews. "I think this is the biggest time of year. I think you saw in the Olympics how well he played. Seems like the guy is a big-time player. He's fun to play with. Things are clicking for him, for our line, pretty much our whole team.
"It's not just one line doing the scoring. We seem to be having a lot of success. We're getting contributions from everyone. But I think it starts with him, to be honest with you."
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.