An oddly sedate matinee between the Chicago Blackhawks and Buffalo Sabres, mostly notable only for the crowd reaction when Patrick Kane would touch the puck, went off the rails late as the Hawks rallied for a 3-2 shootout victory Saturday. And, of course, the South Buffalo native was in the center of the action.
It was Kane who pounded home the tying goal with 33.5 seconds left Saturday, with just one tick left on an ultra-rare 6-on-3 advantage after two penalties were called on the Sabres simultaneously. That’s pretty much the kind of call you never see made, but it was made with 2:33 to go in a game the Sabres led, 2-1.
And when things went to a shootout, you just had the feeling Kane would be out there. He was. The only goal. And a hard-to-shake loss for the Sabres heading into their Christmas break.
For his part, Kane didn’t get the kind of vitriol from the crowd one might have expected. Certainly not what he endured in, say, Philadelphia. The August sexual assault allegations against him that were eventually thrown out last month led Flyers fans to repeatedly chant “she said no” at Kane during the Hawks’ visit there in October.
There was nothing off-the-wall like that here. In fact, it was hard to notice much different. There were the usual number of red Blackhawks sweaters crowded around the tunnel for warmups and most were either 88s (Kane’s) or 19s (Jonathan Toews’).
But the first time Kane got the puck in his zone and moved up ice early in the game, the boos were pronounced. There were other similar moments, and the crescendo really grew as the Hawks pressed for the tying goal, and through overtime and the shootout.
Kane largely pushed aside the fans’ reaction.
“I didn’t really have any expectations,” he said. “Some of the guys were laughing on the bench saying I was getting booed and some were laughing say I was getting cheered. Sometimes you try to block that stuff out but you hear it as the game goes on, as it gets louder, as it comes down to crunch time. Sometimes it gets you into the game.”
“He gets that in some buildings throughout the league,” said goaltender Corey Crawford. “You don’t want to see that for a guy who’s from here and he’s done so much for the game of hockey, especially U.S. hockey. But whatever. Fans do what they want to try to get on him, get him off his game.”
Kane, of course, spent many nights growing up watching games in the building. He recalled a late-’90s affair when Philadelphia’s Eric Lindros was the subject of the fans’ ire and got ejected with about 10 minutes left.
“It wasn’t as fun anymore to watch the game because no one was booing him,” said Kane, who said the boos at home were no issue. “I’m on the road team. They’re cheering for the Sabres. Nothing you don’t expect.”
Kane’s shootout winner was, in a word, filthy. Slow paced, multiple dangles of the puck on his stick and then a ridiculous backhand after Chad Johnson went for a poke check. All after a quick look at his stick at the bench before Kane skated to the puck.
“I was looking at my tape there before I went down and my forehand was all messed up from the overtime and my backhand was clean so I thought it might be a good time to try that move,” he said. “When a goalie goes for the pokecheck on that move, you pretty much have to get that up and that’s what happened on that one.”
Sabres coach Dan Bylsma, meanwhile, went mostly chalk on his choices. Ryan O’Reilly entered the game 10 of 26 in his career but 0 for 3 this season, Tyler Ennis was 15-41/1-2 and Zemgus Girgensons was 3-12/0-0. Defensible choices based on career numbers. But ultra conservative.
The Sabres have the last two No. 2 overall draft picks on their roster. Sam Reinhart is skating well and delivered a sick pass to O’Reilly for what looked like the winning goal late in the third period. Jack Eichel looks like he needs a break.
Reinhart has never taken a shootout while Eichel is 0 for 2 this year. They were ignored as Byslma said he relied on practice stats.
How about having some feel for the moment? At home. Against the defending Stanley Cup champions. You’re a franchise that basically threw away the last 1½ seasons in order to draft some elite talent and now that you have them, you don’t use them? That’s crazy.
Think of how the building would have erupted had Reinhart or Eichel gone to center ice to take a shot. Go for it. If they don’t score, how much worse would they have been than the efforts O’Reilly, Ennis and Girgensons put out?
That’s not what the Blackhawks did. Toews (wrist shot stopped) and then Kane. You go with your best and win (or lose) with them.
In Kane’s case, in spite of the circumstances and in spite of the atmosphere they created, it was still a game he anticipated. He missed his visit here last year due to his broken clavicle and knew it was just his fifth game in the building in nine NHL seasons, as the Hawks were not every-year visitors when he first came into the league.
“It’s special every time you come back,” he said. “I pretty much grew up in this rink and had a lot of childhood memories. It’s fun to have people in this building, family and friends here, a lot of 88 jerseys out there. Overall, when you get that finish and end up winning the game, it becomes a great day.”
His media obligations over, Kane dressed and had a brief autograph session with 20 children from Roswell Park Cancer Institute in a room near the Chicago dressing quarters. Then he met several dozen friends and family.
Out a back door he went to the waiting bus to the rest of his season. Perhaps it will lead to his first Hart Trophy, his first scoring title. Maybe his fourth Stanley Cup.
But the reality is, no matter how many accomplishments get added to a résumé likely headed for the Hall of Fame, there will forever be segments of his hometown that will jeer him lustily every time he takes the ice here.