Jonathan Toews saw the puck fluttering in mid-air in front of the crease Tuesday night, measured it up, and swatted at it with his backhand as Ottawa goaltender Mike Condon fell to the ice.
“The net was wide open,” Toews recalled.
But Toews could only watch with a mix of horror, frustration and morbid bemusement as the puck soared over the net. He dropped his arms at his sides and stared into the void for a brief moment as play continued all around him.
Later in the game, in the dying seconds, with the Hawks scrambling for the equalizer, Patrick Kane found Toews in the crease with a hard pass. It hit Toews’ skate, and somehow just sort of stayed there, rather than go in. Heck, even after he finished his postgame scrum with reporters, Toews walked up to a locked door on his way out.
It’s been that kind of year for Toews, who has just four goals. He hasn’t scored since Nov. 6.
“I don’t know how I missed a couple of those,” Toews said after the 4-3 loss. “Even at the end, I don’t know if I can stop the puck that way if I tried another 100 times. Yeah, it’s frustrating.”
Despite Toews’ offensive struggles — his teammates and Joel Quenneville are always quick to point out how good and how valuable he is at every other aspect of the game — the Hawks sit atop the Western Conference standings. That thought buoyed Toews during the Hawks’ recent win streak as he worked his way back from a back injury that cost him nine games.
The mind-set was different after Tuesday’s loss, when Toews felt he had the game on his stick countless times.
“I said [Tuesday] morning that I would put more pressure on myself if we weren’t winning games,” Toews said. “Tonight’s frustrating because we lost. A couple of those chances could have been a difference-maker.”
Despite Toews’ remarkable offensive consistency — he has scored 28 goals in each of the last three seasons, and has never scored fewer than 23, which came in the 48-game 2013 season — he’s no stranger to goal droughts. He had five goal droughts of seven or more games last season, including the entire first-round series against the St. Louis Blues. He had an 11-game drought the year before that, had two prolonged droughts in 2013-14, and had just one goal in the first three rounds of the 2013 playoffs.
But he always comes around. And when he gets hot, the goals come in bunches.
“I don’t know what to tell you; I feel like I’ve got experience dealing with this sort of thing,” Toews said. “I don’t know what that says about my game. But I still believe I’m that offensive player. I’ve just got to stay with it and keep working.”
Quenneville never worries about Toews, who is still an elite defender, a top penalty-killer, and is ranked second in faceoff percentage (behind only Anaheim’s Antoine Vermette among centers with 500 or more draws).
“He’s getting opportunities,” Quenneville said. “He’s around the net. It’s a matter of time before things start going in for you and you get more confidence in the scoring areas.”
While Toews has his own experience to draw from, he doesn’t need to look too far back to find a comparable situation for another superstar. Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby had just six goals through 32 games last season, and his frustration was mounting along with all the questions about what was wrong with him.
Crosby finished with 36 goals, a Conn Smythe Trophy and a Stanley Cup.
“Well, let’s hope that’s what it is,” Toews said with a weary smile.
“Yeah, it’s not the start to the year I wanted for myself. But what are you gonna do? You’ve got to just try and learn every time you’re in this situation, and let it make you a better player in some kind of way. When I get out of it, just enjoy the game and just let it flow and not worry about the end result. Just play the game. I think the best players don’t go out there thinking about how they’re going to score — they just play and the chances come and scoring just becomes second nature.”