ST. PAUL, Minn. — It almost seems absurd that a player with Jonathan Toews’ résumé could ever have a crisis of confidence. But when shot after shot gets swallowed up by a goalie, or skitters wide of the net, or gets flubbed entirely, even the very best players in the world can start to doubt themselves.
Joel Quenneville, however, never doubted Toews.
“Jonny’s done so many things for us,” the Blackhawks coach said. “He’s an amazing player, as competitive as you’ll ever find. What a great leader, and great captain.”
Indeed, as Toews goes, so go the Hawks. And it’s no coincidence that the Hawks are playing their best hockey of the season as their captain is — finally — heating up.
Toews had his fourth career hat trick and added two assists as the Hawks’ top line continued its torrid play, accounting for all the scoring in a tremendously entertaining 5-3 victory over the Minnesota Wild, their second straight after losing to the Wild eight consecutive times. The Hawks pulled to within five points of the first-place Wild. Minnesota still has a game in hand and a lead in the race for the division title and likely home-ice advantage through the first three rounds of the playoffs, but two wins in St. Paul in two weeks have at least kept it within reach for the Hawks.
And with Toews scorching hot — eight goals and 12 assists in his last 12 games — and the lineup finally falling into place after months of Quenneville’s tinkering, the Hawks look like a team that just might be able to do it.
“What’s making us a really good team is our third and fourth line going out there and just battling every shift, just working, giving other teams no time, no chance to make plays with the puck,” Toews said. “When you can rotate four lines like that … it doesn’t matter who scores on a given night. We’re getting contributions from all over the place, and it makes you a dangerous team and a tough team to beat.”
It was indeed another solid top-to-bottom performance, but the top line of Toews, Nick Schmaltz and Richard Panik was, in Quenneville’s word, “spectacular.” Schmaltz had a goal and a beautiful backhanded, no-look assist on Toews’ second goal (the game-winner) and Panik chipped in a goal and an assist, as well. Toews has been searching for consistent wingers since the start of last season, and it looks like he finally found them.
As for his confidence these days, Toews said “it’s a world of difference, there’s no doubt.” But Schmaltz, like Quenneville, never thought much about Toews’ early season struggles. Even the new guys know not to worry about Toews.
“He’s always been a great player, he just wasn’t getting the bounces there at the start of the year,” Schmaltz said. “He’s always worked so hard. You knew at some point, the tides were going to change for him.”
As well as the Hawks played, the Wild didn’t make it easy on them. After Toews whacked in a Brian Campbell rebound 58 seconds into the second period, Minnesota responded with a Mikael Granlund power-play goal. Toews set up Panik’s 16th goal 41 seconds later, and Schmaltz scored off a Toews faceoff win 33 seconds into the third to make it 3-1. Zach Parise cut the lead to 3-2, and after Schmaltz found Toews to make it 4-2, Granlund scored another power-play goal to make it 4-3. It wasn’t until Toews’ empty-netter with 1:02 left that the game was sealed, and the Central Division was a race again.
The climb to a division title is steep. But at least the Hawks have their captain once again leading the charge.
“Our respect level for what they can do is at an all-time high,” Toews said. “And I think we’re ready for them. We know it’s going to take a heck of an effort to beat them.”