WINNIPEG, Manitoba – Evander Kane was run out of town 11 months ago for what teammates perceived to be a selfish, me-first persona. The Buffalo Sabres winger gave the Winnipeg Jets and their raucous fans quite the take-that in his return Sunday.
Kane endured game-long taunts and eschewed an empty-net dagger he surely wanted so he could pass the puck to Sam Reinhart. And on top of that, it was to a teammate looking for his first career hat trick. Reinhart calmly put the puck into the net, clinching the Sabres’ 4-2 win in MTS Centre.
The play was the epitome of unselfishness, especially when you consider Kane has now gone a season-high seven games without a goal himself.
“That’s a great play, exactly what we’re looking for,” said captain Brian Gionta. “It’s part of a nice team effort to get a win here.”
“I thought it was great,” added coach Dan Bylsma. “I got a couple texts after the game that said, ‘That was a class move by Evander to dish the puck over’ because I know how much he wanted to score one tonight.”
Reinhart made a steal in the Buffalo zone and got the puck to Kane through the neutral zone, as the sellout crowd of 15,294 audibly groaned at the prospect of the villain of the day putting the puck in the empty net. But seeing Reinhart breaking ahead of former Sabres winger Drew Stafford, Kane threw a neat saucer pass that eluded ex-Buffalo defenseman Tyler Myers and Reinhart couldn’t miss.
Kane explained the play simply, noting he’s never had a hat trick in the NHL himself.
“When you get an opportunity to get one – he’s a young kid in rookie year wide open – I might as well hit him with a pass and get him his hat trick,” Kane said of Reinhart. “It was great to see from him.”
“It says a lot for him to handle the ‘welcome back,’ if I could put it that way, (how) he did and to make the play that he did,” said a smiling Reinhart. “It shows he really is unselfish and will do anything for the team. I’ve played with him a lot this year and it shows a lot of confidence the coach has in him on the last play to get the job done.”
Don’t discount the goodwill the play can build for Kane with his teammates. There has been clear indifference regarding Kane in the locker room and on the ice in practice at times since news broke of a police investigation for an incident with a young woman in downtown Buffalo early on Dec. 27, just after the Sabres returned from a win in Boston.
Kane missed practice the next day and the Sabres had gone 0-6 since, with plenty of whispers about why Kane – an otherwise model citizen since the trade – would be out late after a flight, with practice scheduled the next morning.
With that as a backdrop, Kane kept a low profile in Winnipeg for two days. There was no joking with reporters whatsoever. He did interviews wearing a suit jacket and leather shoes. Perhaps the only light moment was when he burst on to the ice for warmups Sunday amid boos – and promptly wiped out when he stepped on a puck.
The crowd loved it.
“It was all part of the plan,” Kane said wryly. “I was looking to get some cheers out of the crowd and get them behind me. I thought that might do it.”
Kane was traded after his Jets teammates threw his clothes in the shower in Vancouver when he reportedly showed up for a team meeting wearing a track suit.
He was showered with boos every time he touched the puck Sunday and the place howled when Dustin Byfuglien, one of Kane’s chief adversaries, labeled him with a clean hit in the first period. Fans around the building mocked him by wearing track suits despite the minus-15 degree temperatures outside.
There were six guys in white suits three rows from the ice – with dollar bills stuffed in their headbands and one of Kane’s infamous Las Vegas Instagram pictures on the chest of the suit. A few rows away, a young couple sat with a man in a full red track outfit and the woman in a blue and gold one. One woman in the stands was seen on Twitter wearing a shower cap.
And the chants were numerous. There was “Where’s your track suit?” followed by “In the show-wer.” Maybe the snarkiest one was “best trade ev-er.”
“I didn’t know what to expect. It really had no bearing on what I thought, how I played,” Kane said.
Kane played 21 minutes, 32 seconds in the game, collecting three shots on goal and six attempts. He nearly tapped home a Jamie McGinn rebound 12 seconds into the game but the puck hit his skate and bounced away. That proved to be his best scoring chance.
“I’m glad we got two points, got off this slide,” Kane said. “This was game 42 for us, the start of the second half. We needed to come out with energy, get the two points, get off this train we were on and get back on the winning side of things. I thought we did a great job.”
“It’s tough, never easy going back to a place you’ve been for a long time,” Gionta said. “For Evander, there was a little added and I thought he showed great poise with it.”