NHL playoffs: Toews sets tone for Blackhawks
CHICAGO -- He is the best right now, or at least one of the best. And when things go awry, when the expected results do not follow the steel-eyed effort, the bile rises and the impregnable facade of Blackhawks captain and former UND player Jonath...
CHICAGO -- He is the best right now, or at least one of the best. And when things go awry, when the expected results do not follow the steel-eyed effort, the bile rises and the impregnable facade of Blackhawks captain and former UND player Jonathan Toews disintegrates in a spasm of profound rage.
It is the video game Mario Kart, after all. There is a race to be won and a reputation to uphold among Blackhawks teammates. It is the postseason. It is very Captain Serious business.
"There have been a few controller spikes and wheel tosses," Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp said. "I've beaten him a few times and I like to get under his skin. It's not very hard getting a rise out of Johnny, but it's a lot of fun, that's for sure."
So now extrapolate this Wii bit of competitive fire to the ice, where the Blackhawks have seized a commanding 2-0 lead in the NHL's Western Conference finals and the relentless, dominant, ascendant play of their captain has fast-tracked them to that point.
Toews leads all NHL scorers in the postseason with 23 points. He has a point in 11 straight playoff games, tying a franchise record. And yet there is no glamour in it. He grinds in the corners, wins draws and happily ventures into thickets of sticks and limbs near the net.
No one anywhere is working harder than the captain. And no one has earned a bigger payoff to date.
"I don't think I've changed that much from the regular season," Toews said. "Obviously, you raise your play at both ends of the rink. You try to play the right way. When you feel really confident, things click, pucks will go in. That's the way it is right now.
"You stick with what works and you work hard for that success. Haven't taken shortcuts. Haven't changed my game. So hopefully I'll keep scoring goals and contributing that way because it's a lot of fun when it's working that way."
There is something larger coalescing here, too, the kind of moment that ripples through many summers beyond this one.
Toews was named the top forward in the Olympics in February after Canada's gold-medal run. Though hoisting the Cup is no guarantee yet, he is a prevailing name in the discussion for the Conn Smythe Trophy, delivered to the most valuable player of the postseason. And he is 22 years old.
"He's a guy who really excels in big-game situations," Blackhawks winger Troy Brouwer said. "He doesn't shy away from anything."
The production is residue of the approach. The image lingers from a hat trick against the Canucks in the second round: Toews crashing the net, collecting an errant pass from Vancouver's Ryan Kesler, flipping the puck in for a score. Effort conjured that sequence.
In Game 2 against the Sharks, Toews battled in the corner for a loose puck, then tapped it to Patrick Kane, who skated away to fire off a shot that Dustin Byfuglien deflected in for the Blackhawks' second goal. None of it occurs if Toews doesn't enter the scrum to collect the puck and spring Kane first.
Not to mention Toews' own score from Game 2, a deflection at the net.
"He always has been an elite player, always worked hard," Sharks defenseman Doug Murray said. "He sets the tone for their team. He plays the game with passion, plays the game the right way. He plays with a lot of determination and courage. The skill combined with that usually ends up being a pretty good thing."
Toews, predictably, pleads ignorance to the attention and defuses the suggestion he's doing anything more or anything better.
"Game to game, you try to contribute any way you can, whether it's killing penalties, scoring goals, winning draws, whatever it is," Toews said. "Not everything's going to go your way every single night, but you have to find a way to keep inching forward and help your team. That has been my focus and the same thing with every other guy in this locker room."
After the stunningly lackluster Game 5 effort against the Canucks, Toews offered his team "a couple of choice words," as Brouwer put it. He repeated himself before Game 6 in Vancouver. Then he hurled himself headlong into more hard work, and the Blackhawks had three of their most complete efforts of the playoffs.
Late Tuesday night, after a stunning victory on the Sharks' home ice, Jonathan Toews walked down a hallway on the ground floor of HP Pavilion, headed for the bus. A smile creased his face. The captain was seriously happy.
"We seem to be having a lot of success, contributions from everyone," Kane said. "But I think it starts with him."