Kane takes command when Blackhawks need him most

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Kane takes command when Blackhawks need him most

Jamal Mayers was choosing his words cautiously regarding Patrick Kane.

I have to be careful. I dont want his head to get any bigger than it already is, Mayers said jokingly after Saturdays practice.

All kidding aside, however, the veteran admires the 23-year-old Kanes recent role. Playing the No. 1 center position can be an unenviable task. But Kanes play there in the absence of Jonathan Toews has been stellar.

Ive been telling him for a couple weeks now that hes surprised me in raising his game, Mayers continued. Hes skating the best hes ever skated. And you add his vision and awareness on the ice and he has the opportunity to be the best player on the ice every night.

Kanes work lately could be measured in a few ways. The obvious is points: Kane has nine in his last nine games, including five (two goals, three assists) in his current four-game point streak. But thats just looking at the obvious. Kane has been skating well, is always a threat and is part of a strong top line with Marian Hossa and Andrew Brunette.

And hes taken on some leadership, too.

I like the fact that hes absorbing responsibility without Johnny around, coach Joel Quenneville said. He knows the importance of the situation with our team, where we we're at and where we are today. He wants to make an impact on games and its been noticeable.

Viktor Stalberg agreed.

Hes had some stretches where hes struggled. Hes still a young guy; you kind of forget that sometimes. But the last couple games hes been great for us, he said. We needed someone to fill that first-line center void for Toews and hes been doing a good job with it.

Kane, for his part, doesnt feel hes doing anything different than normal. He said recently that he does feel good at center right now and its showing. But Kane said its been a team effort in Toews absence.

You see a lot of guys playing a lot of different roles now and its nice to see everybody step up, too, he said. Everyone knows we miss Johnny but theres no predicting when hell be back. We have to have different players step up, get a little bit more ice time and more opportunity. Its a good test for everyone.

That includes Kane. Hes still 23, still has years ahead of him. But at a time when hes needed to grow in his game and take charge, he has.

Hes definitely taken a step forward, Mayers said. And it hasnt gone unnoticed.

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks host Lightning tonight on CSN

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks host Lightning tonight on CSN

Watch as the Blackhawks take on the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live. Then stick around after the final buzzer to watch Blackhawks Postgame Live for highlights and analysis.

Click here to watch the game or download the NBC Sports App, your home for live streaming coverage of the Blackhawks.

Five Things to Watch:

1. Grab the first goal.

The Blackhawks have scored the game's first goal in seven of the last eight games, and of those seven, they've won six of them. Meanwhile, the Lightning have scored the first goal only 17 times in 48 games this season, and are 12-5-1 in those games. They're 9-17-4 when they allow the first goal, so getting out to a lead first will be important against a struggling Lightning team looking for signs of life.

2. Will the floodgates open for Jonathan Toews?

After a four-point game in a 4-2 win over Vancouver, the Blackhawks captain matched his point total over his previous nine games. He's up to 26 points on the season, which is now fifth among Chicago forwards. When Toews has offensive droughts, they usually last longer than they should. But when he gets hot, he gets extremely hot. Perhaps we'll see the floodgates open offensively.

3. A chance for the team lead in scoring.

With an empty-net goal on Sunday, Marian Hossa tied Artem Anisimov for the team-lead with 18 goals. Artemi Panarin is right behind with 17, and Patrick Kane isn't far either at 15. The Blackhawks had four 20-goal scorers last season, and haven't had more than that since the 2013-14 season. They're definitely on pace to hit four, but could they surprass that? Richard Panik, who scored another goal Sunday as well, is fifth with 11 goals while Ryan Hartman has 10. Toews is at eight, but a flurry after a drought could make things interesting.

4. The triplets reunited?

In an effort to jumpstart a struggling offense, Lightning coach Jon Cooper reunited the triplets line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat that was so successful during their 2015 playoff run in their latest game, a 5-3 loss to Arizona. It's unclear whether they will begin tonight's game on the same line, but if not, it's worth watching throughout the game whether they do. The Blackhawks have been coming at opponents in waves lately, so Cooper could look to separate the three to distribute the scoring.

5. Take advantage on special teams.

The Lightning have racked up the fifth-most penalty minutes in the league, and own a bottom-10 penalty kill unit at 80.1 percent. The Blackhawks are the second-least penalized team, and have converted on 17.9 percent of their power plays, which sits at 16th. But they haven't scored one on the man advantage in five straight games, going 0-for-9 during that span. Here's a chance to change that.

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- Latest on the Blackhawks: All of the most recent news and notes

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TSN coaches poll: Wild favored to win West over Blackhawks

TSN coaches poll: Wild favored to win West over Blackhawks

The Blackhawks have won three Stanley Cups since 2010, and have eliminated the Minnesota Wild from the playoffs three times from 2013-15.

But it's the Wild that NHL coaches believe will win the Western Conference this season as we approach the trade deadline.

In his annual midseason poll, TSN's Bob McKenzie surveyed 25 of 30 coaches to vote on multiple categories, such as the league's best player and the team most likely to win it all.

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According to the survey, 11 coaches predicted the Wild will win the West while the Blackhawks and Sharks tied for second with four votes.

As for winning the Stanley Cup, the Washington Capitals are the favorite, earning 10 votes, followed closely by the reigning champion Pittsburgh Penguins with eight. The Wild and Blackhawks rounded out the poll with three and two votes, respectively.

Joel Quenneville earned one vote as the NHL's best coach, which is three fewer votes than he had last year, despite this year being arguably his most challenging — and best — coaching job since arriving in Chicago, given the youth on the roster.