By Chris Emma–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Make no mistake, please, Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane is the NHL’s Most Valuable Player this season. “Showtime” has been consistently excellent in his 2015-16 campaign for the Hart Trophy.
But Jonathan Toews, “Captain Serious,” remains the Blackhawks’ most valuable player — regardless of the outstanding play of Kane. The leadership set forth by Toews is the most instrumental piece to Chicago’s Stanley Cup success. With the playoffs looming, Toews is bringing his best hockey again.
Pressured behind the net by Coyotes defenseman Klas Dahlbeck on Tuesday night, Toews looked right, then turned his momentum left with the puck on his stick, fought his way through and found linemate Richard Panik on an impressive one-time dish, which was distributed to the back of the net. That set the tone for Chicago’s dominating 6-2 win over Arizona at the United Center.
During a crucial penalty kill in the second period, Toews picked off the puck and finished a breakaway by potting it past helpless Coyotes goalkeeper Louis Domingue, who looked ready for the offseason all Tuesday evening. That goal extended the Blackhawks’ rout.
Toews’ effort is palpable as the postseason nears, when the Blackhawks stop dragging their skates and bring their best. As it rained goals inside the United Center and Chelsea Dagger played over and over, fans were reminded that the Blackhawks’ annual late-season slump should offer few reasons to worry.
After all, no team can flip the switch quite like the defending champion Blackhawks.
“We’re getting better and better, and we’re getting to where we need to be,” Toews said. “I think we’ll always think that there’s room for improvement. We’ll keep working towards that.”
The Blackhawks have now tallied 17 goals in their past three games, earning three wins and showing their best form. The power play is scoring goals (three goals Tuesday), and the penalty kill has been perfect in protecting the net ever since Marcus Kruger’s steady presence returned to the unit.
Better news for the Blackhawks is that goalie Corey Crawford and forwards Marian Hossa and Andrew Shaw are due to return before the first round begins, with each of the three in attendance Tuesday. Coach Joel Quenneville offered an optimistic “day-to-day” when asked about Artem Anisimov’s upper-body injury suffered during the second period.
Here come the Blackhawks, banking on their championship pedigree to regain playoff-level form. That late-season slide appears to be in the past — and should’ve never caused concern. It sure didn’t inside that home dressing room.
“We always do a good job of using our experience to stay patient when things aren’t going well and remind ourselves that we’re going to get out of it at some point,” Toews said.
Added Blackhawks defenseman Trevor an Riemsdyk: “Obviously, we struggled a little bit earlier, but we’re getting back to what makes us successful.”
Soon, the challenge of repeating as Stanley Cup champions and pursuing a fourth title in seven years will begin in Chicago. The Blackhawks are showing the kind of urgency that has led to parades.
With the postseason near, the Blackhawks are playing every shift like it’s their last. For all the team’s regular-season slumps, it never lets up in the playoffs.
“We’re trying to focus in and do those little things,” van Riemsdyk said. “That’s when we’re at our best.”
The Blackhawks surpassed the century mark in points with 101 and enter Wednesday four points back of the Stars and Blues, each tied for first place in the Central Division at 105 points. Chicago drops the puck with St. Louis on Thursday at the United Center in what will be a potentially critical game for playoff seeding.
However, seeding has proved to be inconsequential for the Blackhawks, who have won championships as the No. 2 seed in 2010, the top seed of a strike-shortened 2013 season and the No. 3 seed of a revised playoff format in 2015. Regardless of what happens, Chicago will welcome a daunting challenger to town in its first-round matchup — as of Wednesday morning, either Dallas or St. Louis.
Hockey’s revamped playoff format is supposed to create parity and keep a team like the Blackhawks from becoming a modern dynasty to the game. This team is unflappable when it comes to pushing for championships.
It’s no secret why the Blackhawks play frustrating, hapless hockey in March, then show peak performance in April and beyond. This is a game that requires great effort to be successful, and the shiny 34.5-pound object at the end of the tunnel tends to motivate greatness.
Toews flung around the ice Tuesday, and the high-flying Hawks followed their captain’s lead. Poor opponents or not, the Blackhawks are showing their slumps are in the past with a strong level of play. They know it, too.
The chance to repeat soon awaits the Blackhawks, and their best game is already revealing itself. Never count this team out when the Stanley Cup is on the line.