Now is the Tazer's time
A Jonathan Toews resurgence could be a key for the Hawks in Game 4 and beyond.
PHILADELPHIA -- Jonathan Toews has had the season of his life. A new contract, an Olympic gold medal, and now he's two wins from getting his name engraved on the Stanley Cup.
At 22 going on 35, the young captain of the Chicago Blackhawks has matured from a rising superstar to an international sensation, being named the best forward at the Olympics, scoring the first goal in the gold-medal game win over the United States.
Now he's trying to make sure the team that pays him handsomely ($31.5 million five-year deal) doesn't fall off the rails in the Stanley Cup finals against the Philadelphia Flyers. While Toews is the guy you don't worry about, on or off the ice, he's also the guy you know will worry about himself, and his teammates, for you.
As captain and one of the most talented players on the team, he carries the burden of self-awareness and responsibility. Hockey is a team game but it is still Toews' team.
For those who really care about hockey, a number that is growing by the day in Chicago, it will be interesting to watch Toews in the next two or three games, or however long it takes for Chicago to win the Cup. And yes, I'm presupposing that the Blackhawks play to their potential at this pivotal moment and avoid a full series.
When a team wins seven games in a row in the playoffs, it's a clear sign of how good it is, and the Blackhawks are as good as advertised, even if they've struggled to put together complete games this series.
"We've never planned on a winning streak like that," Toews said. "The reality is in the playoff that doesn't happen very often. We're happy to be able to put something like that together. We came into this series knowing it was going to be a dogfight and that's what you saw [Wednesday]."
Toews is known best for his two-way play, and for being a smart player. He doesn't wear the C for fashion. He's just the fifth player since the current playoff format was introduced in 1994 to rack up 20 assists in one postseason, and one of the rising stars in the league.
So it's almost silly to ask his teammates if they're worried about him because his production is down, or to ask his coach, Joel Quenneville, if he wants to see more out of him. Because Toews isn't about the numbers.
"Tazer's been great for us," Kris Versteeg said. "We're not worried about him."
But still, you like to see his line scoring, because that makes the Hawks so much better. After going pointless as the Hawks went up 2-0, Toews got an assist in Game 3, setting up Patrick Kane's goal that made it 3-2 in the third period, for 20 whole seconds anyway, until the Flyers tied it up.
How does Toews think he's playing in this series?
"At this time of year, there's always that doubt in your mind," Toews said. "You always think there's got to be a little something more you can give every single game. You try to bring that the next time around. I feel I've gotten better and better as each game has gone on."
Toews played 22:26 in Game 3, the most of any forward. Toews, Kane and Dustin Byfuglien put together a composite minus-9 in Game 1. Ben Eager joined Toews and Kane for a bit for the second straight game, notching a plus-2. Toews improved in Game 2, notching a plus-1. He was plus-1 again in Game 3. For the playoffs, he's minus-3 at home and plus-6 on the road -- though the Hawks were mediocre at home before the Western Conference finals.
"I think Johnny's line has gotten better each game of the series," Quenneville said. "They were more dangerous last night, be it off the rush, had more puck time."
If Toews can't find scorers like he did so well against San Jose (five assists in four games), he can work on helping the Hawks improve on special teams. Toews has 13 points in power-play situations this postseason, but the Hawks are 0-for-6 in the series, while the Flyers are 4-for-10.
During a series in which every game thus far has been decided by one goal, the team whose mantra is One Goal needs to step it up with a One-Man Advantage.
"When things get really tough, when you see tight game like last night, maybe that's one of those little details you want to work on, make sure that it could be a difference-maker in a game like that," Toews said.
Toews isn't a rah-rah kind of leader, but his teammates have a profound respect for him. And while the Captain Serious nickname is a little overblown, a strong response to his own "struggles" could be the one thing that takes this team over the top.
"As a captain, obviously, whether it's on the score sheet or any other way, you want to be giving something that your teammates are going to recognize and respond to," Toews said. "So that's what I've been trying to do."
The Blackhawks that were made available to the media on Thursday were pretty upbeat, just as they were Wednesday night, in the wake of their 4-3 overtime loss. Versteeg answered questions with a smile plastered to his face, while cradling a soccer ball. Kane talked at length and even joked with reporters. After the first two wins, the Hawks were seemingly pleased, but mostly guarded.
This is how a playoff series is supposed to be, hard-fought and full of possibilities, and maybe this loss will make them appreciate the highs a little more and work even harder to get them back.
"It will be much enjoyable when things go your way, knowing you worked extra hard for it," Toews said.
Coming from Toews, a guy who has seen his hard work pay off in green, gold and hopefully silver, those are words truly meaningful and hopefully prophetic for the Blackhawks.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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