Young Blackhawks learn on the fly

Forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, along with many of their Chicago Blackhawks teammates, are handling their Stanley Cup playoff debuts like grizzled veterans, and their team has reached the conference finals for the first time since 1995.

Kane, Toews thriving under pressure in 1st NHL playoffs

Blackhawks linemates Patrick Kane, left, and Jonathan Toews have stood out in their first Stanley Cup playoffs, combining for 22 points in series victories over Calgary and Vancouver. ((Mark Humphrey/Associated Press))

The early stages of Patrick Kane's NHL playoff debut could best be described as bittersweet.

He managed a combined six shots but only one point in a pair of victories to open a first-round series against Calgary.

More importantly, the Chicago Blackhawks right-winger learned a valuable lesson, courtesy of a couple of big hits administered by his Flames opponents.

"When you're a kid, you watch the playoffs a lot, see how intense it is. It's definitely a different game than the regular season," the 20-year-old Kane told during a recent conference call.

"I found out the first couple of games, I got hammered pretty hard a couple of times. Every shift's a big one. You're playing for your lives every game and every game is a must-win."

It didn't take long for Kane to shake the cobwebs and become a big contributor for the Blackhawks as he collected two points in a series-clinching win in Game 6.

In the Western Conference semifinal, Kane opened with three goals and four points in the first two contests against Vancouver before he was held off the scoresheet for Games 3 and 4. But the five-foot-10, 175-pounder stole the show in Game 6, scoring his first-ever NHL hat trick in a 7-5 win to eliminate the Canucks.

Kane's linemate, fellow playoff rookie Jonathan Toews, scored the game-winner on a power play, and finished the night with two goals and one assist to give him 10 points in 12 games in these playoffs, two behind Kane.

Stepping up in playoffs

"Your reputation is either made or broken in the post-season," Toews, who was named Chicago's captain last summer, told "I think we've both been trying to play our best and [earn a] reputation [as] the kind of player we want to be remembered for."

As one of 12 Blackhawks competing in their first Stanley Cup post-season, six-foot-two, 203-pound Toews has drawn from his experience with the 2008 Canadian national junior team to help deal with the heightened expectations of competing in the NHL playoffs.

On Jan. 3, 2007, the second-year Blackhawks centre answered the call in Leksand, Sweden, scoring on all three of his shootout attempts to lift Canada to a 2-1 semifinal win at the world juniors. The Canadians went on to capture their third consecutive gold medal.

"Playing in the world juniors," said the 21-year-old Winnipeg native, "there's so many people watching back in Canada. I think it's the same this time of year playing [NHL] playoff hockey. You don't necessarily have every single Canadian fan behind you at this time, but there's definitely a lot of pressure."

Toews says the Blackhawks are going to have fun and let loose against Johan Franzen, left, Brad Stuart and the rest of the Red Wings. ((Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images))

But Toews and Kane, along with their teammates, are handling the situation like grizzled veterans, and their team has reached the conference finals for the first time since 1995.

However, the players aren't taking all the credit and quickly note the work of head coach Joel Quenneville, who took over from the fired Denis Savard (now an ambassador for the team) four games into this season.

A proven winner behind the bench in his previous stints with St. Louis and Colorado, Quenneville led Chicago to its first playoff berth in seven seasons following a 46-win, 104-point regular campaign, the team's most since 1993 (47, 106).

"With Joel, if you take a dumb penalty or make a couple of mistakes, he's not afraid to sit you down," Kane, who hails from Buffalo, said. "He makes every shift worth it for you. I think he's … done a great job for a lot of us, helped us enjoy it."

Blackhawks face big challenge

Kane and company would have a lot more fun if they knocked off the defending Cup champion Detroit Red Wings in a best-of-seven West final.

Detroit took the first four games of the season series, including the Winter Classic at Chicago's Wrigley Field on Jan. 1, and then watched the Blackhawks take both ends of a home-and-home set on the final weekend of the regular season.

This marks the 15th post-season encounter between the Original Six clubs. The Red Wings, who have no less than 20 players with NHL playoff experience, prevailed 4-1 in the most recent series, the 1995 conference finals.

"It's a huge challenge and a huge opportunity that we're excited about," Toews told reporters. "In a lot of ways the pressure's on them, so we're just going to go out there and play and have fun and let loose."

But how do you not get overwhelmed by Detroit's experience?

"We have three guys that won the Stanley Cup in three different situations that have helped us and guided us throughout the playoffs," said Kane, referring to forwards Andrew Ladd (2006, Carolina) and Samuel Pahlsson (2007, Anaheim) and goalie Nikolai Khabibulin (2004, Tampa Bay).

"It's nice to have those kinds of leaders stepping up. I guess we're a young team, but we're looking forward to the challenge and see if we can pull something off."

The last time Chicago appeared in the Stanley Cup final was 1992, a 4-0 series defeat at the hands of Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins.