By Chris Emma–
CHICAGO (CBS) — That earnest glare Jonathan Toews wears on his face is a reflection of a man driven to be the best.
Captain Serious they call him, the leader of three championships in an era of excellence for the Blackhawks. He’s the driving force behind his team’s level of play each postseason. Now more than ever, the Blackhawks and a team filled with youth must follow Toews’ lead.
The Stanley Cup is on the line once again, beginning for the Blackhawks on Thursday with their postseason opener against the Predators. To attain it requires great poise with each shift, each period, each game, as Toews has stated. The Blackhawks have found success by being better on more shifts than their opponents. Their focus is minute through the long haul of the postseason.
“When you get to the end of it all, you feel like you can keep surviving, no matter what,” Toews said. “When you’re at the end playing for the Cup, it doesn’t feel surprising that you’re there.”
The Blackhawks often speak of their experience on which they rely this time of year. It’s not cliché — even though they often make it sound so — because you see that next level emerge when a challenge arises. The Blackhawks have an ability to dig as deep as any opponent when there’s that prize on the line, the Stanley Cup that every player in that Blackhawks dressing room has dreamed of lifting. Toews has lifted it thrice, as have many others. Young players like 21-year-old forward Nick Schmaltz grew up watching teammates hoist it before.
For as much as Toews and teammates keep their focus on winning each shift more than winning a championship, the Stanley Cup has to be a constant in mind, right? After all, this is the standard for Chicago’s hockey following. More championships are expected.
“You got to think about it a little,” Toews said. “It’s nice to ride the wave when you win a big game, when you score an overtime goal or when things are clicking your way, you got to use that excitement it gives you.
“It’s a long road to get there. It’s a long enough road to get where we are right now. We’re happy with the way the season’s gone, where we’re at as a team. We’re right where we want to be going into the playoffs. We’re as prepared as we know we can be. I don’t think you can look that far ahead and think about winning the Cup yet.”
Whether it’s fair or not, the Blackhawks are expected by their fan base to win another championship. Go be the best team in hockey for four series. As for the breaks? Make them yourselves. Chicago has high demands for its Blackhawks.
This team is viewed as the favorite to win the Cup for the fourth time in eight summers. This could’ve been a down year for the Blackhawks as coach Joel Quenneville was forced to insert youth around his championship core. Instead, that youth has shined.
The rookie Schmaltz skated on the top line Tuesday, working alongside Toews and Richard Panik. Second-year wing Artemi Panarin has been just as good as his Rookie of the Year form last season. The 22-year-old Ryan Hartman has replaced Andrew Shaw as the Blackhawks’ grit guy, winning the faith of his demanding coach.
After getting bounced in the first round with a gut-wrenching Game 7 loss in St. Louis last April, the Blackhawks bolstered their greatest weakness from a season ago and added defensive depth with old friends Brian Campbell and Johnny Oduya. Quenneville has rolled four lines all season, and both goaltenders have played well.
The Blackhawks are the most complete team entering this playoff push, but the key is withstanding the trials of a tenacious marathon. That’s where their greatest asset shines — the experience factor is revealed.
“It’s so many momentum swings,” Marcus Kruger said. “We know it’s not going to be easy all the way. To go all the way is going to be tough. It’s going to be a lot of ups and downs, stuff like that. You got to stay with it and stay together as a team.”
Added Toews: “That experience really kicks in when we find ourselves in a tough spot, or when maybe things aren’t exactly going our way, it seems we can lean on that quite a bit.”
The Blackhawks can count on players like Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook to steady through the dangerous waters. Corey Crawford has been in net for two championship runs.
What this team needs is for its youth to play the same as always. Schmaltz knows he can’t be hesitant because it’s the postseason. He’s a top-line forward playing alongside the captain.
“This is where the fun starts,” Schmaltz said. “We’re playing for keeps here.”
After lifting the Cup three times before, the Blackhawks know well not to look too far ahead. They’ve been challenged in each run to a championship. It never comes easy, but they have the talent, the depth and the experience to bring another parade to Chicago.
The Blackhawks know to keep their focus on winning each shift, though you better believe the Cup is constantly present in mind.
Toews is dead serious about this.
“We want to do it again,” Toews said. “We’re excited to be playing hockey this time of year. That’s what it’s all about for us.”