Blackhawks

Blackhawks: Patrick Kane returns to Buffalo for first time since investigation

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Blackhawks: Patrick Kane returns to Buffalo for first time since investigation

BUFFALO, N.Y. – When Patrick Kane departed Buffalo in mid-September, he did so facing a myriad of questions.

At that time Kane was the subject of a rape investigation. How that would unfold was unknown. What the Blackhawks were going to do with their right wing, outside of starting the season with him, was unknown.

Since then, some questions have been answered. The investigation against him was dropped in early November. The Blackhawks have stated that Kane is part of their long-term future. Now we’ll see Buffalo’s reaction to Kane’s return when the Blackhawks face the Sabres on Saturday afternoon.

[MORE: Marcus Kruger sidelined four months with dislocated wrist]

On the ice, Kane has been great. Entering Friday’s games, he led the NHL in points (47), was tied for the league lead in assists (28, with Erik Karlsson) and was one shy of the league lead in goals (19), shared by Jamie Benn and Vladimir Tarasenko (20). His 26-game point streak, a new franchise record, ended against the Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday.

Kane was in the midst of his streak when general manager Stan Bowman was asked if Kane was part of the Blackhawks’ long-term future.

“Absolutely,” Bowman said in late November. “You can’t find talent like that. You look at what he’s done over the course of his career, whether it’s this season, last season or since he was a rookie. He won rookie of the year. He’s been a game changer. He’s one of those guys that, I’ve said it a lot over the years, he’s able to elevate his game in pressure moments. Not too many guys are able to do that.

"Sometimes when the pressure gets on, they have a hard time performing, but he’s sort of the opposite. He seems to raise his game.”

Fan reaction to Kane on previous road visits varied. Some audiences did nothing audibly noticeable. Some booed. Some took part in unsettling chants. But Saturday’s game won’t be in the buildings in which Kane was disliked well before last summer. It’ll be in his hometown, and one would think the crowd will have a positive reaction to Kane.

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Asked if Kane’s return to Buffalo now would be any different considering this past summer, coach Joel Quenneville didn’t foresee it.

“He’s gone through, I’d say, five months of a lot of attention. He’s gone through a busy stretch here,” Quenneville said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be much different.”

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks hit road to face Blue Jackets

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NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks hit road to face Blue Jackets

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Columbus Blue Jackets tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. One big reunion.

The Blackhawks will square off with the Blue Jackets for the first time since Oct. 7, which was the second game of the season. In that game, they won 5-1 led by Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad, each of whom scored a goal and added an assist.

Of course, that was the first game since the offseason trade that sent Artemi Panarin to Columbus and Saad back to Chicago, along with Anton Forsberg. Artem Anisimov, of course, was part of the original deal that sent Saad to Columbus in 2015, so there are a lot of emotional ties between the two teams.

Forsberg didn't get a chance to face the Blue Jackets in the first meeting, but there's a chance he will this time with it being the second of a back-to-back and Jean-Francois Berube getting the start in Friday's 3-1 win over San Jose.

2. Panarin and Kane bromance.

The emotions of a difficult break-up have probably died down by now, but Panarin and Kane gave us this moment at center ice during pregame warmups in their first game against each other and it hit Chicago right in the feels:

Panarin has spent enough time apart from Kane for people to realize how big of a star he is in his own right, leading the Blue Jackets in all three scoring categories: goals (17), assists (32) and points (49).

He hasn't gone more than three games this season without recording a point, and is looking to extend his point streak to four games, which would tie a season high.

3. Struggling Blue Jackets special teams.

The Blue Jackets got off to a great start but are barely clinging onto a wild card spot going into Saturday's game, and a big reason for that slide is their lack of success on special teams. Usually one can pick up the slack for the other, but they've been brutal in both departments.

The Blue Jackets are 0-for-9 on the power play in their past five games and are ranked 31st overall, converting on only 14.1 percent of their opportunities. They also have own the 27th-ranked penalty kill with a 76.3 percent success rate.

So if there's an area the Blackhawks can exploit, it's that. But, you know, still be mindful of that Russian winger's one-timer from the faceoff circle.

Jean-Francois Berube impressed in his first Blackhawks start

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USA TODAY

Jean-Francois Berube impressed in his first Blackhawks start

Jean-Francois Berube got his first start of the season on Friday night, and it couldn't have gone any better.

The 26-year-old goaltender stopped 42 of 43 shots, a career-high for him in saves, in the Blackhawks' 3-1 win over the San Jose Sharks at the United Center.

Since Corey Crawford went down with a head injury last December, the Blackhawks have been searching for consistency in the crease. 

The pair of Anton Forsberg and Jeff Glass — who was assigned to Rockford on Feb. 15 and replaced with Berube — have had their ups and downs since then. With the Blackhawks out of the playoff picture, Berube had an opportunity showcase his skills, and he didn't disappoint.

"We were very happy with him," said coach Joel Quenneville. "I thought he did a great job. He was comfortable. I thought he was very patient in his net. Absorbing a lot of pucks with people in front of him was good. Closed some gaps and got … of the top of the paint. Rebound control was effective. Nice response from a long absence."

Berube's last — and only — appearance with the Blackhawks prior to Friday's game came on Dec. 6, relieving Forsberg in a game against the Washington Capitals. He recorded 12 saves of 14 shots. 

When Crawford got injured, Berube was the primary candidate to become the team's backup goaltender. The only problem? He was injured too, so the Blackhawks promoted Glass.

"I didn't want to sit and think about it," Berube said of his injury. "At the same time, it was great for Glasser. He was one of those guys that probably deserved it earlier in his career and he finally got his chance. Sometimes you need a guy to go down to have your chance. So I was mostly happy for him.

On Friday night, he got his chance.

"You always want to have a good impression for your first game," Berube said. "I know what I can do at this level, so it was just a matter of getting the opportunity to play and showing people what I can do."

Celebrating his 22nd birthday, Nick Schmaltz also had a goal and an assist. Artem Anisimov scored an empty-netter.

"It's a lot more fun coming to the rink when you're winning, enjoying each other, playing well as a team," Schmaltz said of the Blackhawks' win, which have now won three of their last four games. "Hopefully we can keep that good energy and bring it to the rink every day, and build off of that.

"You never know where this team can go, a lot of great players, lots of guys that have had a lot of success. Hopefully we can continue to put together solid efforts."