And if you think he’s nervous on the game’s biggest stage, forget it. Having trouble sleeping? Not really.
“I’ve said it before I don’t really get too many butterflies as far as hockey goes,” the young and confident Blackhawks star said on the eve of Game 1 against the Philadelphia Flyers.
“You get excited thinking about it. You might toss and turn a bit, but I’ve never really had a problem sleeping. I’m too young for that.”
It’s a final between two franchises trying to end long championship droughts.
The Blackhawks are searching for their first title since the days of Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita in 1961. The Flyers are looking for their first championship since the Broad Street Bullies socked their way to the second of back-to-back Stanley Cup titles in 1975.
Chicago’s appearance in the finals is its first since 1992. Kane barely remembers what he was doing in those days.
“I was 3 1/2 years old. I was either getting ready for preschool or playing mini-sticks with my mom and dad on the rug,” he said.
Kane came to the Blackhawks after a pingpong ball took a lucky bounce as Chicago won the lottery and moved ahead of the Flyers—who had the worst record that season—to get the No. 1 pick in 2007.
Kane was an easy choice for the Blackhawks and became rookie of the year, while the Flyers took James van Riemsdyk(notes) with the second pick. Now both are in the Stanley Cup finals, facing each other with Game 1 set for Saturday night at the United Center. They are also close friends, who dined together this season when the Blackhawks visited Philly for their only meeting with the Flyers.
“It seems like it’s almost worked out good for both teams,” Kane said. “They’re here three years later. I’m here three years later, our team is, and that’s the most important thing for this franchise.”
Kane quickly emerged as a star, a consistent scoring threat with his speed and handling skills. Van Riemsdyk took a different route, heading off to college first and then signing with the Flyers a little more than a year ago.
“We were both put in different situations and we were in different stages of our hockey development and, you know, I did what I thought was best for me to be a better player,” van Riemsdyk said. “He was obviously ready to make that jump right after the draft. He’s done a good job for himself.”
And for his team. The Blackhawks were playing before a half-empty arena before Kane and 22-year-old captain Jonathan Toews(notes) arrived and became the centerpieces of the team’s rebirth on the ice and the accompanying marketing campaign.
Now the Blackhawks are one of the hottest tickets in Chicago, a young team that made it to the Western Conference finals a year ago before losing to Detroit.
Winning four more games will be a challenge against a Flyers team also considered a championship contender entering the season before it had to make a remarkable run to get to the finals for the first time since 1997.
The Flyers withstood a coaching change from John Stevens to Peter Laviolette, injuries to key players like Simon Gagne(notes) and Jeff Carter(notes), and needed a shootout win on the final day of the season just to get in the postseason.
After disposing of New Jersey in the opening round, they staged one of the greatest comebacks in league history, rallying from a 3-0 deficit in the series and falling behind 3-0 in Game 7 before beating the Boston Bruins. The Flyers took out Montreal in a five-game Eastern Conference finals.
Chicago beat Vancouver and San Jose in its last two playoff series. The Blackhawks beat Nashville in the first round and will face that same kind of stingy defense with the Flyers, led by defensemen Chris Pronger(notes), Timonen, Braydon Coburn(notes) and Matt Carle(notes).
Two goalies no one expected to see in the postseason have shone. The well-traveled Michael Leighton(notes), who started his career with Chicago, has been a rock in the postseason since taking over in Game 5 against Boston when Brian Boucher(notes) hurt his knee. He is 6-1 and had three shutouts against the Canadiens.
“Maybe you don’t see the whole picture the way you should take the pressure. You’re just happy to be there and doing your best and you will have more energy,” Niemi said.
A matchup between him and the 220-pound Pronger, long one of the game’s nastiest defenseman, could be must-see hockey.
“I don’t know if we look forward to that. It’s certainly something that’s going to have to happen,” Laviolette said. “When you get somebody of his size — and Chicago has done a good job of creating havoc in front of the opposition’s net—there’s been a lot of tipped pucks, second opportunities, rebound goals.”