April 16, 2012
Toews is only going to get better
By ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency
CHICAGO - His teammates can see it and the opposition best fear it: Captain Serious is getting his game face on.
Jonathan Toews may be the less-celebrated of the concussion-recovery superstars in these Stanley Cup playoffs, but don't tell that to the denizens of the Madhouse on Madison.
The Blackhawks captain makes his return home for the first time in 24 games Tuesday night, looking to lead his team to a 2-1 series lead over the Phoenix Coyotes in the Western Conference quarterfinal.
Toews may not be at peak condition just yet, but unlike Penguins star Sidney Crosby, the overall playoff prognosis looks considerably brighter.
With a pair of dramatic comebacks to force overtime -- a Game 1 loss and Game 2 win -- the 'Hawks made history by becoming the first NHL team to tie the score with less than 15 seconds remaining in consecutive games of a playoff series. And while the tight-checking and hard-hitting 'Yotes are making it tough, a getting-healthier Toews will be up for the task.
"I feel good, there hasn't been any sort of residual effect from the injury," Toews said following his team's practice at Johnny's Ice House, just down Madison from the United Center. "For the most part, it's just timing and speed and energy, all those things.
"They'll keep coming. I feel like my game is slowly going to come together. It definitely wasn't all there in those first two games, but we'll get through it."
Unlike Crosby, who had a number of games at the end of the season to prepare for playoff speed and intensity, Toews had no such head start. Out of the lineup since Feb. 19 after symptoms worsened during a Blackhawks road trip, the recovery was slower than anticipated to the point that as the season wound down, many wondered if he'd be ready for the first round.
Again, unlike the Crosby saga a year ago, Toews finally got the green light and jumped right back in with a goal and an assist last week in Arizona. He also logged 24 minutes and 21 seconds in the opener followed by 23:24 the next night and is a plus-four on the series thus far.
How much more can he do?
"He's not 100% in terms of pace because his body has been off for a while," said 'Hawks winger Viktor Stalberg, who has been on a line with Toews for parts of the first two games in the series. "But we know he's gong to be that guy who is there for us when we need it.
"He's going to get better as we go along. He's even got another level to his game."
That other level may well get a jump start from the home crowd here Tuesday and Thursday nights. One only has to remember the scene two springs ago on the 'Hawks long and successful Stanley Cup run.
"It's playoff hockey at home here in Chicago," Toews said. "We all know what kind of energy there is going to be in the building and we'll look to use it to our advantage."
While the benefits of Toews' leadership and renowned intensity are obvious, might the Hawks have become a stronger team in his absence? Though they were only able to move up to the No. 6 seed, they showed late-season signs of pulling things together.
"We had a tough stretch here, obviously, when we lost nine in a row, but we learned a lot about ourselves," forward Jamal Mayers said. "Playing without (Toews) for the last 22 games forced us to play the right way and has allowed us to step up. I think having developed that consistency in our game has given us the right attitude."
The Hawks have certainly taken it to the Coyotes, firing a combined 95 shots at Mike Smith through the first two games. And in keeping with the rest of the mayhem in the playoffs, they had their own incident when rookie forward Andrew Shaw bowled over Smith, earning him a hearing with the league.
The Coyotes, meanwhile, have been getting their shots in as well, outhitting the Hawks in both games thus far.
"I'm sure it's just going to get more and more physical," Coyotes captain Shane Doan said. "As a series goes along, you start to get little personal battles going on. It's starting to get personal."
And for the Hawks and their captain? Serious.