CHICAGO – It is, simply, the best line in hockey.
Hart Trophy favorite Patrick Kane, flashy rookie Artemi Panarin and veteran center Artem Anisimov have been together for virtually the entire season, and according to one website that tracks such statistics, they are the highest-scoring line in the NHL with 35 goals when they are on the ice together. That’s nine more than any other trio.
Kane has a league-leading 32 goals and 76 points. Panarin leads all first-year players with 52 points.
“Everything stems from Kane, being one of the better if not the best playmakers in the league,” Paul Martin said. “Every time he has the puck on his stick or he’s on the ice, he’s dangerous. You key on him, and it gives the other guys the opportunity to find that open ice, and they have great skill to create plays, too.”
What has coach Pete DeBoer seen from that line?
“Just ridiculous skill,” said the Sharks coach. “They’re not afraid to try and beat you anywhere on the ice. They sense offensive opportunities seconds ahead of other guys and normal players. That’s how they end up in behind you, creating open ice. They’re as dangerous as anybody in the league, and we’ve got to be aware of that.”
Chicago has been able to thrive again despite some significant turnover over the summer, when the salary cap forced it to move some key pieces like Patrick Sharp and Brandon Saad. The Blackhawks have a five-point lead on Dallas in the Central, and the best record in the Western Conference (36-16-4).
“New faces, but same style, same skill, same elite team every year,” Tommy Wingels said. “That’s a testament to them. It’s always a challenge playing them.”
“The core is the group that drives the bus here,” said DeBoer, mentioning Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith, among others. “As long as those guys are there you’ve got interchangeable parts around those guys, but those guys are the identity of the team.”
The Sharks will be attempting to close out their four-game road trip coming out of the All-Star break with a 2-2 record. They lost a tight game in Anaheim on Feb. 2, 3-2; beat the Blues two nights later, 3-1, but suffered their worst loss in more than two months on Saturday in Nashville, 6-2.
Chicago has won each of the first two games of the season series, beating the Sharks convincingly in San Jose on Nov. 25, 5-2, and again on Dec. 20 at United Center, 4-3 in overtime, when the Sharks blew a third period lead.
San Jose could find itself in third place in the division by the time the puck drops on Tuesday, as the Ducks visit the Penguins on Monday night. Anaheim trails the Sharks by just one point.
“Teams are getting points this time of year, so you’ve got to get yours,” Joe Pavelski said. “You don’t want to lose two in a row, and that’s the biggest thing – just end this road trip on a high note, and come though the Central with a couple wins.”
Wingels said: “We’re somewhat happy with how we were playing prior to last game, but if we can come through this stretch 2-2 I think we’ll be happy with it at this point of the season. It’s a big game tomorrow night.”