Bruins have Kane well covered
Usually a master of time and space, Hawks wing has been hemmed in by Boston
BOSTON -- If time and space are the currency of success for an offensive star, Patrick Kane is broke.
Roughly 13 periods into the Stanley Cup finals between Kane's Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Bruins, and the Hawks have managed just five goals. They trail in the series 2-1 after being blanked 2-0 on Monday night. Game 4 is Wednesday.
It is easy to say, then, that for the Hawks to reassert themselves in this series, those players must produce.
What makes the issue more complex and perhaps in the end more compelling is that those players -- specifically Kane -- must find a way to solve the puzzle that is the Bruins' defense.
"They have players looking for space instead of fighting for it," one NHL coach told ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun.
Kane is at the heart of this great test of wills.
When he has found time and space this spring, he has been electric. He scored the overtime winner and series clincher in Game 5 against the Los Angeles Kings, capping a virtuoso three-goal performance. He began the playoffs with five points in the first three games against the Minnesota Wild.
"There's not a lot of space, but you've got to find a way to generate it and you can't be predictable," former player and coach Ed Olczyk, now a veteran broadcast analyst, told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "He's focal because everything seems to go through him in a lot of situations. It's instrumental."
Olczyk believes that for the Hawks to even the series in Game 4 -- a virtual must-win for Chicago -- Kane and the rest of the forwards need to play more between the faceoff circles and the net.
"Those guys are expected to do the job, and whether it's once a game or once a period, it's consistency of getting inside the dots," Olczyk said. "That's the biggest thing for me when this team is playing [well]: They play inside the dots. They're not getting there a lot and they're not getting a lot of second-, third-chance opportunities."
Former player Keith Jones, also a national analyst, said the Bruins' "layers" of defense make it difficult for high-end players like Kane to get open.
"When [a Hawk] beats one man, there is another waiting," Jones told ESPN.com. "And it makes it really difficult for Kane to dangle. The Hawks need to do more give-and-goes down low in the offensive zone and jam the net for rebounds."
Certainly, Chicago coach Joel Quenneville would like to see his star winger with the puck more often than was the case in Game 3 -- even if Kane already is the playoff leader in shots on goal.
"Kaner had stretches last night when he had the puck," Quenneville said Tuesday. "When he has it, he's dangerous. The more he has it, the more efficient and effective he is. We'll find some things that can get him the puck more. But I still think [in Game 3] he had more puck possession."
There is no doubt this has been a season of significant change for the former rookie of the year, U.S. Olympian and the man who scored the clinching goal in the 2010 Cup finals. He has shed the party boy image that dogged him for much of his early career.
And he's refined his game, rededicated himself in many ways to becoming a more fully evolved offensive weapon.
It's an evolution that doesn't come without a willingness to change or people who are invested in helping that change take place.
Darryl Belfry has known Kane since the Buffalo native was a youngster playing minor hockey and going to camps in the Niagara region. Belfry coached Kane. As Belfry's career has changed and evolved, so too has his relationship with Kane. (If you think Yoda and Luke Skywalker, you're on the right track.)
While Kane has always been particularly skilled -- he was the first-overall pick in 2007 for a reason -- skill is only part of an elite player's equation.
Watch the game's best players and you see they've changed their games. Sidney Crosby has been the prime example in recent years. We saw Alexander Ovechkin resuscitate his career by changing positions and his method of attack this season, earning the Hart Trophy for his troubles.
Kane longs to be considered in that group, and for much of the regular season he'd shouldered his way into that discussion. It's difficult to quantify Belfry's impact on Kane's evolution, but it is significant.
For a number of years, Belfry has been fine-tuning the kind of coaching he does, analyzing players' games and helping them break down areas where they might improve, and also building drills that he hopes are catalysts for such improvement.
Belfry is a high-tech skills guru, and Kane -- along with players such as John Tavares of the New York Islanders and Matt Duchene of the Colorado Avalanche -- have used his input to try to stay ahead of the competition.
Belfry will take game tape and break down individual shifts for his clients to determine things they might do to be more effective. Many of his players are highly skilled, so often it's about offering suggestions on how they might create more space to either find teammates with a pass or find a shooting lane.
It's more than simply saying a player needs to skate faster or shoot harder. Belfry breaks down how a player might skate faster, what dynamics allow for a player to find a position to take a pass and one-time it, and factors in things like weight transfer or skating stride.
"There's nothing general about it. It's highly specific," he said.
Kane used to be seen as a pass-first player. He was very good at it, but teams would defend him on that basis. Belfry has helped Kane become a dual threat by creating drills that put him in better positions to shoot more often.
Kane, who did not speak to the media after Game 3 or on Tuesday, told ESPN.com in an earlier interview that the relationship with Belfry has been beneficial because it gives him specific areas he can concentrate on that dovetail with the game plan implemented by the Hawks' coaching staff.
Much of the work is done in the offseason, but for some like Kane with whom he has a special bond, Belfry will review game tapes on a regular basis and forward video critiques and suggestions.
"His game is all about controlling the real estate on the ice," Belfry said.
The two have had periodic contact during the postseason.
"I had a fantastic text exchange with him just prior to the last two games of the L.A. series regarding looking to improve his possession time in the offensive zone that led to more opportunities with the puck and more dangerous plays," Belfry said. "He was on the puck a ton more, and when he's feeling it, well, you saw the result."
Belfry credits former Philadelphia Flyers coach John Stevens, now an assistant with the Kings and a finalist for the head-coaching job with the Vancouver Canucks, for helping him get his start in the field of coaching analytics.
"He kind of gave me some ideas how to break things down using video tools," Belfry said. "He was able to see things at such a tremendous specificity, so I immersed myself in that with the encouragement of John."
After the Hawks defeated the Kings in the West finals, Stevens praised Kane's evolution as a player and said he could see Belfry's influence.
"He's really helped him narrow the focus," Stevens told ESPN.com.
Kane is one of the top puck-possession players in the game, he added.
"He's off the charts," Stevens said.
If ever there was a time for a little Belfry magic, Wednesday night would be it.
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