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Fresh faces in Second City

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For the first time since the names Chris Chelios, Jeremy Roenick and Ed Belfour dotted the roster, the Chicago Blackhawks have something to get excited about.

Teenaged forwards Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are atop the NHL rookie scoring race, a 1-2 punch that leads a number of other impressive youngsters and looks to finally give Chicago fans something to rally around for years to come.

“They’re special people,” Blackhawks coach Denis Savard said. “I think they’re the type of players who want the ball and run with it. They want to be the best, not only once in a while, but every night.”

A franchise with only one playoff appearance in nine years and none in the last four has reason for hope. The Blackhawks have a winning record as the quarter mark of the season approaches, and they have two unlikely sources to thank.

“We didn’t expect them, honestly, to be as good as they are right now,” Savard said of Kane and Toews, both natural centers.

It’s been a long time since Chicago hit on its first draft picks in consecutive seasons – Kane selected tops overall last June and Toews the third player chosen in 2006.

From 1990-2000, first players drafted by the Hawks each year went like this: Karl Dykhuis, Dean McAmmond, Sergei Krivokrasov, Eric Lecompte, Ethan Moreau, Dmitri Nabokov, Remi Royer, Daniel Cleary, Mark Bell, Steve McCarthy and Mikhail Yakubov.

The only familiar names on the list – McAmmond, Moreau, Cleary and Bell – have all long since departed. Krivokrasov and Dykhuis enjoyed brief and modest success in Chicago before both turning into journeymen players, and the rest never panned out.

To say the Blackhawks were due is a grand understatement.

“Right now it’s been a lot of fun,” Kane said. “How could it not be fun? We’re two young guys playing in the NHL at a young age, and it’s been a dream of our lives to do this. We’re living the dream right now.”

With the recent crackdown on obstruction in the game, the Blackhawks were not detoured by Kane’s lack of size. Listed at 5-feet-10 and 163 pounds in the team’s media guide, Kane is not physically imposing, but his skating, puck-handling skills and nose for the net earned him a spot on the roster.

“I got a lot of questions about that before and after the draft,” said Kane, averaging more than 18 minutes a night. “I knew it’s not really an issue because I don’t really play a big-sized game. I go out there, try to make plays with the puck. But I’m not going to muck it up in the corners or grind it out and just go out there and smash guys.”

Kane, 18 for another week, scored his sixth goal Friday night, added an assist and increased his points total to a league-best 19 for freshmen. He’s only been held off the scoresheet five times and he’s managed at least one shot on goal in every game he’s played.

Quite the whirlwind couple of months for the Buffalo native who after spending two years in the United States National Team Development Program spent last season with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, where he scored 62 goals and 145 points in just 58 games.

“A couple months ago I’m graduating high school, getting drafted in the NHL and you don’t think it’s going to happen this fast when you’re playing in the league,” Kane said.

Toews, 19, took almost the opposite route. The 6-2, 203-pound native of Winnipeg chose the U.S. college route instead of Canadian junior hockey. After two standout seasons at the University of North Dakota, Toews, too, has made the big jump.

Toews, who had six goals and 13 points in 14 games after Friday, scored the league’s highlight goal of the season against Colorado on Oct. 19 in just his fifth NHL game. Toews carried through center near the boards, stickhandled through three Avalanche skaters and outfoxed Colorado goalie Jose Theodore with a gorgeous move in close that had everyone around the league buzzing.

“It was basically instinct,” Toews said. “You’re coming through the neutral zone with a lot of speed. … And I guess I caught the defenders a little flat-footed. Once they got closer I kind of got in there (and) realized the goaltender was going to be out of his net a little bit. … It’s one of those things, you get a little lucky and you just go with it.”

Breaking in together sort of takes the pressure off of both since the spotlight is shared. In addition, Kane and Toews are just two of 12 Blackhawks on the roster age 25 or under. And both admire each other’s game.

“He’s really easy to play with because he works so hard,” Kane said of Toews. “It’s funny, like sometimes with myself, I really have to gear myself up to work hard and battle where it’s almost instinct for him … he just creates space out there.”

“We were going over video and Coach Savard paused it right before Patrick was going into the corner,” Toews said of Kane. “He asked Patrick how much he weighed, 165 pounds or whatever. He replayed the video. You see Kaner going in, smashing some guy who was basically twice his size.”

The true test will be to see how Kane and Toews progress throughout the long haul of an 82-game season. Certainly they won’t catch anyone by surprise now, and they could benefit if veterans such as Robert Lang, Sergei Samsonov and the currently injured Martin Havlat pick up the pace so the team doesn’t have to count on a couple of youngsters to show the way.

In the meantime, though, their exciting play is helping to revive interest in an Original 6 team that’s been off the map for far too long.

“Because of their determination, their will, how smart and mature they are, it’s been fun coaching them,” Savard said. “They bring it every night and that’s what is so refreshing here.”

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