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Crossing the lines: Blackhawks split up Kane, Toews

CHICAGO – The intrigue and gamesmanship are at full throttle in the Stanley Cup final heading into Game Three on Monday in the United Center.

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, if not quite showing his hand, is giving clues that he will keep Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews on separate lines just as they were when they finished Game Two.

Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper, meanwhile, hit the Windy City and kept the secrets to his goaltending situation locked tight as if they were still inside Al Capone’s infamous vault downtown.

But whether it’s starter Ben Bishop or 20-year-old rookie Andrei Vasilevskiy in the Tampa Bay net, the Lightning will be getting a different look from the Hawks.

Neither Toews nor Kane had a point in the first two games until Quenneville broke them up for the third period Saturday and Toews fed Brent Seabrook for the tying goal in a game the Blackhawks eventually lost, 4-3. Kane, meanwhile, hasn’t even had a shot on goal for the last five periods.

He had none the entire game Saturday – just the second time in his 112 career postseason games that has happened, and the first instance he’s been blanked since 2009.

“As an offensive guy, you want to be helping produce, especially at this time of year,” the South Buffalo native said Sunday as the Blackhawks held a session with reporters. “But you know, we said all along with our team, we don’t really care where the goals come from, as long as they’re coming from our team. I think I can help in that area obviously.”

Pressed on the shotless performance, however, Kane said he’s trying to make sure his game is well-rounded in the face of strong marking by the Lightning.

“I can’t just go out on the ice and worry about shooting the puck,” Kane said. “I’ve got to worry about making the right play. If that play is making a pass, and you know, I’ll make that play. Going into the next game, I’m not going to go in saying, ‘I need to get a shot here or there.’ ”

Kane will be playing with Brad Richards and Kris Versteeg while Marian Hossa has moved up to join Toews and Brandon Saad. The Blackhawks can spread out their scoring and make it more difficult for Tampa Bay’s shutdown defense pair (Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman) or the Cedric Paquette-led checking line to focus most of its efforts on one unit.

Splitting up the line, and getting the last change at home, should help neutralize that issue the next two games.

“Regardless of whether ‘Kaner,’ or Hossa are on our line, we need to be smart in our own zone because they’re still going to go out there and try to make plays, make us play in our own zone,” Toews said. “When we have the puck, they’ve been doing a great job of skating on us and not giving us a lot of time.”

“Kaner is most effective when he has the puck,” said Quenneville. “He wants the puck. He can do a lot of good things with it. That’s why a lot of times they’re not together. But I find he plays his best hockey the more he gets the puck.”

Kane simply hasn’t touched it much in this series. That said, he was also pointless in the first two games of the Western Conference final against Anaheim and then blew up to post three goals and four assists over the final five games.

“Certainly I think splitting those two up gives you a little bit more freedom as far as whether it’s room or something for them to be concerned with,” Quenneville said. “I think a little bit more balance to our offense is why we usually keep them apart. We’ll see how that progresses. But they do like playing with one another. It certainly enhances the offense when they are together.”

The series is tied at a win apiece and went the same way as Tampa’s previous trip to the final, with the Lightning losing Game One at home in 2004 to Calgary and bouncing back to take Game Two. Sunday, in fact, marked 11 years to the day of the John Tortorella-led Lightning’s Game Seven win over the Flames. Tortorella is well-known for not giving a hint about what’s up with his goaltenders and that’s all anybody wanted to know from Cooper on Sunday.

So Cooper took a page out of Torts’ book when the first question he got started with “you know what’s coming.” Cooper did. And he had his retort ready.

“Well, in honor of the 11-year anniversary of our organization’s first Stanley Cup, how would John Tortorella answer that question?” Cooper said as laughter filled the room. “I’ll just leave it at that.”

Now, Cooper did double back to goaltending a few minutes later and admit he had no idea which goalie would play but that he thinks Bishop will be available. It’s still uncertain if Bishop was ill and had a potty problem, like it appeared to most in the building and many folks chattering on the Internet, or if he was nursing an injury. CBC studied footage of the warmups and a couple of collisions during the game and insisted Bishop had a knee or groin problem, but that wouldn’t really explain two sudden scoots off the ice in the third period.

Tampa Bay players weren’t letting on either. If they even knew.

“We’re not sure. And if we were, I probably wouldn’t tell you anyways,” said a chuckling captain Steven Stamkos.

“As long as they don’t need me to back up or anything like that, doesn’t change anything for me,” cracked defenseman Braydon Coburn.

The Lightning have plenty of belief in Vasilevskiy, who got the win Saturday and thus became the first goalie since 1928 to come on in relief in a Cup final game and get his first postseason victory. He’s played for Russia in the World Junior Championships and played in the KHL, so he’s hardly green for his age. Cooper and his players agree no one spends more time at practice or film study either.

“He’s ready to go in at any moment. You got to love that in him,” Cooper said. “So if ‘Bish’ can’t go tomorrow, is that a blow to us? Sure it is. But do we think the series is lost because Vasilevskiy is going in? Not a chance.”

Still, this is the Cup final in the United Center. The new Madhouse on Madison, where the roars will start during the national anthem and probably never let up. That’s a pretty big stage. Just imagine if we get a game as good as the one we had Saturday in Tampa.

Said Cooper of the frenetic pace of Game Two: “I don’t know how somebody could leave that rink last night and not be an instant hockey fan if that was your first game.”

He’s dead on. Now the chatter off the ice is starting to get as interesting as the play on it. Cool.

email mharrington@buffnews.com

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