Patrick Kane happy to welcome new toughness into Chicago

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When the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010, they did it with a healthy mix of skill and toughness. With guys like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Marian Hossa mixed in with the likes of Ben Eager, Adam Burish, and Troy Brouwer they were the careful mix of sandpaper and skill that teams need to lift the Stanley Cup at the end of the year.

Last season, however, things were a bit different for Chicago. Gone were the likes of Burish and Eager (among others) and they had to find other ways to win games. Playing tougher defense systematically was one way they did it and still they were able to make the playoffs and nearly pull off a first round victory against Vancouver.

This offseason has seen things change a bit for Chicago. While they weren’t selling everyone off this time around, bringing in the likes of Sean O’Donnell and Steve Montador on defense along with Jamal Mayers and Dan Carcillo at forward, that snarl is back in the Windy City and one guy that’s glad to see it is Patrick Kane.

Kane tells ESPN Chicago’s Jesse Rogers that that physical element was something they were missing last year.

“I don’t think you can have ever have more than enough [toughness], especially on our team,” Kane said. “You look at so many skill players that we have, I think last year — I don’t want to say we got exposed — but we weren’t like as protected enough as years before.

“Sometimes you have to mix and match. You just can’t put the best 12 players on the ice at all times because they are the most skilled. You need certain players for certain roles.”

One other guy that found his way out of town was Troy Brouwer who was traded to Washington for a first round pick. Brouwer had some skill and had a penchant for getting in opponents heads with his ability to talk a big game. Kane says Brouwer’s loss might be a bit bigger than some let on.

“I think the thing with Brouwer, he never really felt like he got a fair shake,” Kane said.

Perhaps that kind of feeling inside is what helped him be as effective as he was at rubbing opponents the wrong way.

If Chicago thought that Brouwer wasn’t being effective enough, they’ll get an over-correction in that brand of game thanks to Carcillo’s presence. His work being an agitator, while sometimes endearing to fans, can lead his team into trouble with needless penalties. Savvy veterans like Mayers, O’Donnell, and Montador should be able to do enough to help counteract Carcillo’s shenanigans. If those guys can’t do it, then dealing with ultra-serious and ultra-competitive team captain Jonathan Toews should do it.

With the moves Chicago’s made, they’re certainly going to be more nasty to deal with and with how they played down the stretch last season with their intensive style of hockey, adding that physical element into the mix will help better establish the Blackhawks in the Western Conference race.

Then again, all that that will guarantee is that they’ll find another way to meet Vancouver in the playoffs somehow once again. Hey, after three years it has to happen, right?

The Leafs’ remaining schedule is no cakewalk

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The Toronto Maple Leafs took care of business last night, sending the floundering Florida Panthers to a 3-2 defeat at Air Canada Centre.

Now comes the hard part for the young Leafs. They have seven games left to book their first playoff appearance since 2013, and their schedule is no cakewalk.

The Leafs’ next three games are all on the road, in Nashville Thursday, Detroit Saturday, and Buffalo Monday. After that, it’s a four-game home stand to close out the schedule, all against formidable opponents: Washington, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, and Columbus.

With a four-point playoff cushion, the Leafs can afford to lose a few games down the stretch. But head coach Mike Babcock doesn’t want his players looking too far ahead.

“I really believe with our group if we just focus on the day we’re playing and play right, we have a real good chance to win,” Babcock said. “That’s what we talk about and that’s kind of our mantra every day is just play right, play fast and we have an opportunity to be successful. We don’t get all caught up in the race. We know the standings, it’s in the paper every day, so we know that.”

The Leafs today sent goalie Garret Sparks back to the AHL. That can only mean good news for starter Frederik Andersen, who could play Thursday after missing last night’s victory with an upper-body injury.

Backup Curtis McElhinney got the nod against the Panthers, calling it the biggest game of his career. The 33-year-old then went out and made 25 saves to earn the win.

“It was great,” said McElhinney. “Getting a couple of goals in the first period there helped out a little bit and let me settle into it. It was a nice win.”

Parise ‘pretty black and blue’ after Wilson high stick, but injury not serious

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Zach Parise looked in bad shape after taking a Tom Wilson high stick to the face in Minnesota’s loss to Washington on Tuesday.

Thankfully for the Wild, Parise’s early diagnosis is a good one.

“He can see and is fine as far as that goes,” head coach Bruce Boudreau said on Wednesday, per the club’s Twitter account. “He’s sore in the upper body. I don’t think he’ll be out long.”

Boudreau went on to add that Parise was “pretty black and blue” and unlikely to play tomorrow, when Minnesota hosts Ottawa. That said, the club expects the 32-year-old to return next week.

It goes without saying that losing Parise is huge. The alternate captain has 17 goals and 37 points through 64 games this year, and is averaging 17:33 TOI per night. And for a Wild team that’s mired in a horrific slump — just three wins in its last 15 games — being down the services of such a vital contributor is costly.

Related: Stewart fought Wilson in response to the high stick

Stamkos ‘getting really close’ to return

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It probably won’t happen Thursday against the Red Wings, but Steven Stamkos is getting close to making his return for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“I think we can start putting him in the day-to-day category right now,” said Bolts coach Jon Cooper, per team beat writer Bryan Burns. “I don’t see him playing against Detroit. After that, I’d say it’s getting really close.”

Stamkos, who hasn’t played since November due to a knee injury, practiced today with his teammates. He took line rushes and even worked with the second-unit power play.

“Today was probably the best day yet,” the captain said. “Doing better than last time we talked and really feeling better each day now.”

Tampa Bay’s next game after Thursday’s is Saturday against Montreal.

The Lightning are three points back of Boston for the second wild-card spot in the East, but they do hold a game in hand on the Bruins.

A challenging offseason awaits Dean Lombardi

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For the 23rd time this season — the most in the NHL — the Los Angeles Kings lost a game in regulation after they outshot an opponent.

It happened last night in Edmonton, where the Kings outshot the Oilers, 35-29, but lost on the scoreboard, 2-1.

Afterwards, captain Anze Kopitar could only express his frustration.

“It seems like we’re beating the dead horse every night,” Kopitar said, per LA Kings Insider. “We outshoot teams, we out-chance teams yet we’re on the other side of the winning part, so bottom line it’s just not good enough. Whether that’s offensively or defensively, we’ve got to be better in both areas.”

It’s mostly offensively. For whatever reason, the Kings have the second-worst shooting percentage (7.6) in the NHL, with only Colorado’s (7.2) being lower.

Perhaps the Kings aren’t getting enough quality shots. Perhaps they don’t have enough quality shooters.

Probably a bit of both.

But it’s something that GM Dean Lombardi will need to address this offseason — assuming he can.

Roster-wise, the big problem for Lombardi is that the Kings have a pair of veteran wingers, Dustin Brown and Marian Gaborik, whose contracts look a lot like anchors.

Brown, 32, and Gaborik, 35, have combined for just 21 goals this season. Meanwhile, their combined cap hit is north of $10 million, and there’s plenty of term left on each deal.

Not helping? Both Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson are pending RFAs, and they’re in line for raises.

Oh, and there’s not much in the way of top prospects, either. In the past four drafts, only once have the Kings made a first-round pick. (Adrian Kempe went 29th overall in 2014.)

Eleven points back of the second wild-card spot in the West, the Kings are all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. They’re in Calgary tonight to take on the Flames.

Related: Kings give another kid a look, recall AHL All-Star Brodzinski