Shared appetite for greatness fuels friendly Matthews-Kane rivalry

Auston Matthews and Patrick Kane discuss the last classic matchup between the Maple Leafs and Blackhawks, with great back and fourth action, and goal celebrations, and discuss the respect they have for one another.

TORONTO – Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat were sitting on a plane from Tampa to Detroit last year when Auston Matthews approached the Chicago Blackhawks stars and joined them for the duration of the up-north trip.

“He just came up and talked to us for like two-and-a-half, three hours, just talking about hockey and things that had happened in the past. Anything about hockey,” Kane recalled after Wednesday’s morning skate.

“He obviously has a great interest in the game. Those are the kind of guys — who really love the game, really are passionate about it — that have a lot of success.”

That shared appetite for greatness, the one that has Kane (0.60) and Matthews (0.56) ranked one-two in goals per game among Americans this season, is what propelled the most entertaining and emotional early-October NHL game in recent memory.

“A lot of firepower in that game,” Chicago captain Jonathan Toews smiled. “People were waiting to see what happens, and the big players showed up.”

Back and forth they went, these superstars, trading clutch highlight-reel goals (two apiece) and Hulk Hogan-inspired celebrations in a river hockey affair for the ages, Matthews ultimately out-duelling his American idol on a four-point rip as his Maple Leafs escaped with a thrilling 7-6 overtime victory in Kane’s house.

“A headache for the coaches, but fans love it,” Matthews said ahead of Wednesday’s long-awaited rematch.

“For me, I think it was pretty fun that night. Something you’ll always remember, I guess. Go head-to-head and have that kind of exchange with a guy like that, a guy I’ve looked up to since I was a kid. It was pretty cool.”

Though heated after that loss, and possibly feeling a touched showed-up in his own barn, Kane gets the significance of that clash. Just as he understands the importance of Wednesday night’s rematch, a “must-win,” he says, for his bubble-team ‘Hawks, and a rare Canadian-based tilt being televised nationally in the U.S. by NBC. (Doc Emerick in the house!)

“Those are the kind of things that help grow the game, to be honest with you. You’ve got a young American player coming up who’s the face of the franchise, probably one of the faces of the NHL, and a guy who’s had success in his career,” Kane said.

“So for us to go at it like that, then have the celebrations like that, it was nothing planned. Just raw emotion out on the ice. That’s when the best stuff comes out. Pretty cool moment. I don’t think it was a moment either of us will forget.”

Having grown up in Buffalo, Kane, now a mature student of the game, thinks fondly of outsmarting one of his heroes, Dominik Hasek (then with Detroit), in a victorious shootout back during his home NHL debut in 2007.

Second only to Nikita Kucherov in the Art Ross race and entrenched as “an absolute superstar” (Mike Babcock’s words), the 30-year-old cherishes those nights he battled face-to-face with idols Joe Sakic and Pavel Datsyuk, the magician Kane studied in his later teen years.

“When you’re going up against those guys, you’re kinda nervous. You don’t want to get embarrassed,” Kane said. “It’s still a great challenge and pretty eye-opening, too, that you’re at that level playing against those guys.”

It is with that exact reverence that Matthews speaks of Kane.

“He’s deceptive. You never know what he’s going to do when he’s got the puck on his stick. He draws so much attention, guys don’t know what to do, really. They don’t want to end up on [sports] highlights the next day,” Matthews said. “Then he’s making a back-door pass over two sticks.”

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The two first spent time together a couple summers back, when they trained alongside a group of NHL elite at a skills camp run by development guru Daryl Belfry in Southwest Florida.

“I just remember he was a pretty respectful kid, pretty quiet,” Kane said. “Then you see him on the ice, he’s the hardest worker out there. He’s always working on his shot, working on his skating. Never stops working. It makes you better as a player too.”

Blessed is the word Matthews chooses to describe how Kane can throw up a 20-game point streak or make toe-dragging look as casual as a yawning.

Still, the 21-year-old knows that a duck cruising smoothly on the surface is paddling like mad underneath. He pushes himself with that same hunger and inner drive. Game recognize game.

“Everything he does on the ice is so smooth, but you see all the work he does on the ice [and] off the ice after practices,” Matthews said. “He’s the hardest-working guy out there. That’s a testament to his drive and how great he wants to be.”

No one is predicting another 13-goal shinny spectacle Wednesday.

Systems tighten as the snow thaws.

The dynasty that was Chicago now sits last in the Central Division and is buckling down defensively in a fight for its wild-card life. Toronto was humbled hard by Monday’s 6-2 and has vowed a stingier effort.

But with Matthews and Kane on the sheet, the fireworks are in place.

Anybody got a light?

“Both teams have some pretty high-powered offence,” Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton said, “So it’ll be interesting today.”

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