A big reason the Chicago Blackhawks were able to breeze through this regular season was the terrific comeback season turned in by Patrick Kane.
Coming off a down season in 2011-12, the speedy and gifted right winger tied for the team lead during the regular season with 23 goals in 47 games -- the same total Kane had in 82 games during the previous campaign.
For a star NHL player, of course, producing in the regular season is only a small part of the equation. Big-time players are expected to be at their best when the games matter most. So, when Kane's offensive struggles returned during the playoffs it seemed like his return to form during the regular season was a distant memory.
On Thursday night in Los Angeles, however, Kane answered the call against the Kings with one of his best performances of the playoffs. As a result, the Blackhawks grabbed a pivotal Game 4 in the Western Conference finals and placed the defending Stanley Cup champions just one loss away from elimination. With Kane leading the charge, they also moved one step closer to reaching the top of the NHL mountain, where the Blackhawks last stood in 2010 after winning the franchise's first Stanley Cup in nearly half a century.
Kane's problems this postseason were no secret. Even Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville, who unlike former New York Rangers head coach John Tortorella is not accustomed to calling out his own players, said after Game 3 he was "looking for a little more" out of Kane.
Quenneville went on to say Kane wasn't playing at the top of his game because he didn't have the puck enough. However, the coach also made it clear that Kane's lack of puck possession was due to a lack of hunger on the ice.
"You have to find a way to get the puck and find a way to want it," Quenneville added.
Well, the message certainly made its way to Kane, who found all sorts of ways to get the puck in a 3-2 win over the Kings in Game 4. Perhaps, it was the pointed words from his coach or the fact Quenneville swapped Kane and fellow right winger Marian Hossa on the team's top-two lines. That meant Kane played on a line with centerman Jonathan Toews and playoff hero Bryan Bickell.
The change certainly benefited Kane, as he managed to fire seven shots on goal -- the same amount he had in Games 1 through 3 combined. As an added bonus, the switch did nothing to slow down Hossa, who scored the game-winner in the third period of Game 4, giving him seven goals in this postseason, one less than teammates Bickell and Patrick Sharp.
Kane's goal - only his third of the playoffs - came with just 1:39 left in the second period and tied the game at 2-2. Hossa tallied only 1 minute, 10 seconds into the third stanza to give Chicago all the offense it needed to down the Kings and hand them their first loss at Staples Center in over two months.
"It was huge, especially the way they're playing at home," Kane said. "I think they won 15 in a row here at the Staples Center. It was nice to come in and steal one for sure."
Despite giving themselves a cushy 3-1 lead in the West finals, Kane says his club still knows last year's champions have a lot of fight left.
"We put ourselves in a good spot," Kane said. "By no means do we feel the series is over. You know they're going to come out with their best game in Game 5. We have a great opportunity to close it out at home. It's a huge opportunity for us."
Kane's resurgent performance on Thursday is one reason to feel good about Chicago's chances in Saturday's Game 5, but the return of top defenseman Duncan Keith to the lineup is an even better one.
Keith was suspended one game by the league for a one-handed slash to the face of Kings forward Jeff Carter in Game 3, but the top-seeded Hawks survived his absence on Thursday. Michal Rozsival did his best Keith impression in Game 4, seeing his ice time increase dramatically with Quenneville's best option in the press box.
Chicago's strong suit at both ends of the ice is its superior depth and this playoff run has showed why. The offense found a way to get by without Kane playing at the top of his game for most of this postseason and the defense showed Thursday it even can withstand the loss of a former Norris Trophy winner.
Still, just because Chicago's ability to play as a cohesive unit can cover up for Kane's struggles doesn't mean the team isn't much better off when he's at the top of his game.
The Blackhawks hope Kane delivers again on Saturday. After all, a team can never have enough firepower when attempting to take down a champion.