- Jerry Bonkowski, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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Had he not left the University of North Dakota after his sophomore year in 2007 to play for the Blackhawks, Jonathan Toews likely would have been preparing for graduation this month.
First, there would have been final exams, followed by walking across the stage to pick up his diploma.
But while Toews won't receive the UND sheepskin yet, he's still proven to be an honors student of sorts during his two-year tenure with the Hawks.
Not only was he chosen as the youngest captain in team history (and third-youngest overall in league history) at the age of 20 last July, the fiery Canadian has led by example in a manner typically seen from a well-seasoned veteran.
During the regular season, Toews led the team in goals (34) as well as game-winning tallies (seven). And while many observers questioned whether Toews and the youthful Blackhawks -- the youngest team in the league -- had the resiliency to do much in the postseason, they're taking great pride in proving the doubters wrong.
As the Hawks prepare for Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals Saturday in Vancouver with the series tied, Toews said it's time to put the knocks of youth and lack of playoff experience to rest.
"We've done a good job not listening to the naysayers, I guess, and we're confident with what we can accomplish," Toews said. "That's all we need to know, that's all we've got to do, and that's all we need to worry about."
Make no mistake about it, Toews spoke with the pride and confidence of a veteran. He's for real, and this team is for real.
And with Thursday's 2-1 overtime win -- the Hawks have come from behind in both victories -- the chance of advancing further in the playoffs is very real.
"I don't think those comebacks, or the fact we're scoring late all the time, has anything to do with our youth," Toews said. "Even [in Game 4], we knew it was going to come, and we were a little bit more relaxed. I wouldn't say we were comfortable being down a goal, but I think we didn't have to force things."
With Vancouver holding a 1-0 lead late in the third period Thursday, Martin Havlat tied things up with less than three minutes to play. And it took Andrew Ladd less than three minutes in OT to score the game-winner.
"When you're down one or two goals, a veteran team just doesn't lose their patience and doesn't panic and we did that [Thursday]," Toews said. "We stuck with it and knew one of these days we're going to have a breakthrough and have a bounce go our way, and it did."
The Hawks still have to beat the Canucks twice in the next three games, including at least once in Vancouver. Chicago won Game 2 on the Canucks' home ice as Toews picked up his only point of the series with an assist.
"We're confident we can get a win in their building if we play our way," Toews said. "I don't think our confidence or self-esteem is going anywhere. I just think at times we have a few lapses; that's obviously the reason we've had two losses so far. If we start playing hard in their end, chipping pucks and we don't try to do it all ourselves, we'll get that momentum and energy going our way."
A native of Winnipeg, Toews hasn't yet received his college diploma, but he has a great job. And he has learned more life lessons in the past two years with the Blackhawks than most classrooms could provide.
One of those lessons is to focus on the task at hand.
"We know we're coming back [to the United Center for Game 6 on Monday], but the No. 1 focus is the next one in their building on Saturday," he said. "We'll deal with [Game 6] when it comes."
7hEric D. Williams