CHICAGO – Duncan Keith blocked a shot Friday and sent the puck toward the side wall at United Center.
Time was running out on the New Jersey Devils, who frantically pushed for a game-tying goal against the Chicago Blackhawks. The Devils' net was empty at the other end, and the situation called for a two-way player like Marian Hossa or Jonathan Toews to make a stand defensively.
Instead, it was Patrick Kane who made the big play near the corner in the Blackhawks' zone. The high-scoring right wing swiped the puck just before Devils defenseman Eric Gelinas could send it behind the net with 52 seconds left and started a play that led to an empty-net goal.
The assist was Kane's 63rd point, which pushed his lead in the NHL scoring race to three after the games Friday night, but it was also an example of his growth as a player. It wasn't too long ago when Kane would routinely hang out in the neutral zone, circling, and waiting for stretch passes instead of backchecking to retrieve pucks in the defensive zone. It's not that way anymore.
"I knew he was a great player, but you don't know [why] until you get here and get playing with him," said veteran Brad Richards, who centers Kane's second line in his first season with the Blackhawks. "I'm very impressed with his maturity. Sometimes you hear a lot of different things over the years, but [you see] how dedicated he is to the game and how focused he is on the game. He wants to make a difference on every shift. Nothing's ever good enough. He wants more. That's a good sign at that age."
Kane turned 26 in November.
He has hoisted the Stanley Cup twice. He scored a title-clinching goal in overtime of Game 6 of the 2010 Stanley Cup Final. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy following the Blackhawks' 2013 championship. He's done a lot of great things already, but there's a lot more he could do before leaving this game.
Leading the NHL in points might be one of them.
The Blackhawks will play host to a team Sunday that has a couple of guys who have done that before. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will lead the Pittsburgh Penguins into Chicago for a nationally-televised game, but this time they're both looking up at Kane in the points race. Last season, Kane marveled at how consistently Crosby stacked points en route to his second Art Ross Trophy, seemingly adding to his total every game.
It's tough to catch a guy like that in a points race, and now Kane is becoming the same kind of player.
"I think what you're seeing, he's leading the League in scoring or right around it, he's probably coming into his own and being mature, not taking nights off," Richards said. "He's been real consistent. I don't know if that surprised me, but he obviously is putting up more points than he has most of his career. I think it's just maturity and getting used to playing an 82-game schedule over and over again."
Kris Versteeg, the beneficiary of Kane's hard work against the Devils, put it a different way.
"You can just see the effort levels in all puck areas of the ice," said Versteeg, who also played with Kane when both were just breaking into the NHL. "Whether it's playing more in the defensive zone or coming back for pucks more, picking pucks up … you know, he wanted the puck a lot as a kid, but I mean, he wants the puck 60 minutes of the game now."
He paused before finishing the thought.
"It's pretty remarkable that somebody can have the puck that much and do so much with it," Versteeg said. "There's no one else, really, in the world that can. To see him keep evolving as a player is special and I'm just glad to be a part of it and watch it happen."
Hockey fans can say the same. Kane is putting on quite a show this season.
He's scoring goals (team-high 27). He's setting them up (team-high 36 assists). And, yes, he's also playing defense. His 35 credited takeaways are second only to Hossa on the Blackhawks.
Kane's maturation on the ice has even impressed demanding, defense-oriented coach Joel Quenneville, who was recently asked if he thinks Kane has what it takes to lead the NHL in points for an entire season.
"Absolutely, because he wows you," Quenneville said. "Game in, game out over a long stretch he's been extremely impressive. [He's] dominating single-handedly a lot of nights, getting a lot of our scoring chances or making plays no matter who he's on the ice with."
Kane said it's largely the result of his off-season dedication. He doesn't put his skates on a shelf for a couple months in the summer. Kane works hard in the weight room, but also gets on the ice a lot.
"I try to tell myself and believe that I grow a little bit every year, whether it's offensively or defensively, skating or just strength on the puck," Kane said. "You just try to get better in every area of the game. So, I really believe that working on my game in the summer has helped a lot, skating a lot and trying to work on things. You kind of have a whole year of hockey instead of having so much off time, and that's really helped me."
Blocking out the points race helps too. He's still aware of his points and where he ranks, but it's not an obsession to finish first any longer.
"Pretty much anyone you play with in this lineup is a treat to play with, and you're lucky to be on their line," Kane said. "I'm having fun with that, and I'm trying not to think about points too much. I think that's where you kind of get in trouble. If you think about playing well and creating chances, those things will come along eventually. I'm better off when I just worry about playing well."
So far, so good.