Appreciating the deadly tic-tac-toe of the Blackhawks’ power play

Chicago Blackhawks stars Duncan Keith, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

Fri. Jan. 15, 2016
Blackhawks 1 at Maple Leafs 0
CHI PPG – Patrick Kane (27)
ASST: Artemi Panarin (26), Brent Seabrook (23)

Tic-tac-toe is a simple game. We’ve been teaching it to kids for thousands of years in hopes of bending young minds toward the concept of strategy. But it also looks like more than it is, which is key to its longevity.

The empty tic-tac-toe board hints at untold complexity: If you’re placing X’s and O’s on a three-by-three grid, there are 362,880 possible configurations. But the game works because that complexity is an illusion—the rules narrow the number of true outcomes to 138. If you had never observed one before, a perfectly played game (which would take 10–15 seconds and end in a draw every time) might leave you thinking you had seen complex strategy being processed and executed at blazing speed. But really, it’s elementary.

You can write a simple computer program that will win or draw every single game.

Which brings us to the Chicago Blackhawks; to Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin, in particular; to a style of offensive hockey that looks like a whirling dervish of creativity, but is really just a display of beautiful, simple skills employed in perfect concert. Patrick Kane is a left-shooting right-winger who stands five-foot-11 and weighs 177 lb.

He leads the NHL in scoring by a mile. Artemi Panarin is a right-shooting left-winger who also stands five-foot-11 and weighs seven pounds less than Kane. He leads NHL rookies in scoring, also by a mile. Both of them have puck skills that are the envy of all but an exalted few. One’s American. One’s Russian. One has been at the centre of the season’s biggest controversy, and its most dominant on-ice performance. The other doesn’t speak much English, smiles a lot, and is known to teammates and fans as the “Bread Man.” They are, in at least some interesting ways, mirror images of one another.

And on a Friday night inside a mortuary-quiet mid-season Air Canada Centre in Toronto, they circle near the home team’s net on the power play like a pair of sharks waiting for a wounded fish to wiggle. Panarin to the left of Leafs goaltender James Reimer and Kane to Reimer’s right.

They move up and down their respective sides, playing off the defence’s overreaction to the other. It’s what they’ve done all year to devastating effect. It’s worked once already in this game. It’s going to work twice more. And when the command performance is all but over, Kane will tap a pass into an empty net to complete a hat trick and a four-point night.

But right now, it’s only 1–0. Right now, Toronto has cleared the puck back down to the Blackhawks zone, and the home team still has a fighting chance. There are 65 seconds left in the man advantage and they are passing more slowly for the Leafs than for anyone else in the world. The Hawks power play has so much skill, its options are dazzling. Every player on the ice can move the puck. The defencemen—Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook—are drenched in honours, from Norris Trophies to Olympic gold medals and Stanley Cup rings.

The centre, Artem Anisimov, has the slick hands to distribute the puck and a big enough body to crash the net. And then there are those wingers, stars of increasingly filthy highlight reels on which the threat of being an extra is enough to paralyze defenders into inaction.

Kane receives a pass as he rolls across his own blue line, then the red line, with a full head of steam, his sheer speed backing Leafs defender Dion Phaneuf across his blueline and granting Kane easy entry into the Toronto zone. He pulls up and holds the puck on the left boards and two Leafs, Phaneuf and Byron Froese, rush toward him.

When they converge, the puck has already gone back to Panarin who is behind Kane at the blue line, then quickly across to Keith, who is manning the point as the Blackhawks move into position.

From this spot, the options seem limitless. When Keith holds the puck at the top of the zone, with Seabrook to his right, Anisimov in front of the net, Kane cutting across the goal en route to his natural right-wing spot and Panarin moving quickly down the boards on the left wing, it appears as though the Blackhawks might do anything.

The Leafs zone is that three-by-three grid of empty white boxes, and when you have to defend everything, it’s that much harder to defend anything. In hockey terms, a “tic-tac-toe” sounds about as simple as it gets: first pass, second pass, goal. It seems easy, but it’s not. Two crisp passes through defenders followed by a successful snipe is a rare feat in an offensive zone the size of a studio apartment that’s crammed with nine skaters, a goaltender and a referee.

Keith quickly flips the puck to to Seabrook on his right, who is immediately pursued by Froese while the rest of the Leafs collapse around their goaltender. Seabrook takes half a second to assess and fires a pass all the way back across the ice—right through the high-slot area the Leafs defenders have just vacated—to Panarin, who cradles it on his stick while skating toward the net just aggressively enough to lure both Daniel Winnik and Phaneuf, who has peeled off from Kane to defend the goal. With Froese still trying to catch up to the play, that leaves only Morgan Reilly on the far side of the net, and he’s busy trying to keep Anisimov from making himself at home in front of Reimer’s crease.

You could be a lot worse at hockey than Kane and still know where this leaves you: all alone on the right side of the net. In the same split second Seabrook’s pass lands on Panarin’s stick, Kane’s own stick begins to rise, calling for the puck. And as soon as Phaneuf and Froese commit, the package is on its way to the most dangerous player in the NHL, who is standing by himself, untouched, in the nice little office he’s set up in the faceoff circle. Kane even has enough time to settle the puck comfortably before depositing it into the wide-open net.

Both passes travel more than 70 feet. The defence is utterly flummoxed. The whole thing takes about five seconds. The first time, it seems like the brilliant culmination of a series of lightning-quick on-ice computations. When you see them do it three times in one night, it just looks... simple. Tic. Tac. Toe.

This article appears in the March issue of Sportsnet magazine.