As his teammates somberly shoved gear into their oversized hockey bags, another dismal defeat in the books, Jonathan Toews stood in the visitors’ dressing room at Ottawa’s Canadian Tire Center with his hands on his hips, a glare in his eyes and defiance in his voice.
It was March 28, and the Hawks were winding down a largely uninspired (by their standards, at least) second half of the season.
“Not to sound arrogant or anything like that, but I think we can control the game, we can find ways to win, regardless of who we’re up against,” Toews said. “If we want it bad enough.”
The message was clear: No matter what happened in the long and — let’s face it — often-boring regular season, the Hawks firmly believed they were the best team in hockey.
And they’re starting to look like it again.
“There were some moments early in the season where we picked up where we left off and played great hockey,” Toews said Saturday, a day after the Hawks’ 5-2 victory over the Minnesota Wild in Game 1 of the second round. “As the games piled up, it’s tough to keep that pace high and stay on top of your game. . . . [But] we know we’re the type of team that can compete with anybody in the postseason. That’s what really matters to the guys in the locker room.”
Naturally, it starts at the top, with Toews and Patrick Kane. When Kane hurt his knee March 19 and Toews was knocked out of a loss in Pittsburgh by Brooks Orpik two nights after that loss in Ottawa, things looked bleak for the third-place Hawks. But the injuries allowed the overtaxed stars to refresh for the postseason. The Hawks have won five in a row since dropping the first two games of the playoffs in overtime in St. Louis — Toews has the game-winner in three of them, Kane has the game-winner in two.
It’s a stark contrast from last season, when Toews had one goal in the first 20 playoff games, and Kane had two in the first 15. The Hawks are peaking at the right time, largely because their biggest stars are peaking at the right time.
“It wasn’t the plan, but them getting a break going into the playoffs, we felt was only going to be beneficial for these guys in their approach and being fresh, being energized,” coach Joel Quenneville said.
But it hasn’t been a two-man show. Corey Crawford has been outstanding since he called himself out after Game 2 against the Blues. Brent Seabrook is tied with Toews and Kane for the team lead in points with eight, despite sitting out three games with a suspension. Bryan Bickell has regained his 2013 postseason form with four goals. And Ben Smith has filled the void at second-line center.
“A lot of people talk about the core, but to win a Stanley Cup, you need 25 guys,” Seabrook said. “Being able to win last year gives us all a lot of confidence, and having guys step up throughout the playoffs is huge.”
It’s early, of course. Just five wins down, 11 still to go. The Wild showed in the second and third periods of Game 1 that they won’t go down without a fight and are capable of controlling play.
The Hawks know they’re not even close to halfway there. They know it’s a long and bumpy road.
Are they peaking at the right time? Only if they can continue to peak for about five or six more weeks.
“I think you can only say that if we make it back to where we were in the postseason last year, if we get the same result,” Toews said. “But the bottom line is we want to play our best hockey right now.”
So far, so good.