NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Ryan Johansen has been everything you’d want in a top-line center during the first-round series between the Blackhawks and Predators. He has a goal and four assists in three games, and his line has completely dominated play while leading the Predators to a stunning 3-0 series lead.
That he’s doing it against one of the game’s great No. 1 centers, Jonathan Toews, makes it even sweeter. The mere fact that he’s even going up against Toews in a playoff series is something Johansen has been relishing.
“Yeah, it’s awesome,” he said. “Obviously, you want to be measured by how you play against opponents like we’re playing now. For me, it’s a fun opportunity to play against a guy like Toews, and all the other stars on their team that have had so much success over the last seven seasons and won a few Cups. To be able to be happy with your game against those guys is a pretty satisfying feeling.”
Toews, meanwhile, hasn’t been satisfied in some time. The last time he scored a postseason goal, Patrick Sharp had the primary assist, way back in Game 5 of the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. That’s 12 straight playoff games without a goal for the Hawks’ captain.
“That’s something I’m obviously well aware of, and no better moment than a game like [Thursday],” Toews said after practice Wednesday. “I’ve waited long enough. You’ve got to go out there feeling lucky, like you’re going to work for that bounce. I’m just trying to stay patient and smart and do the right things. Obviously, no more waiting. [Game 4] is a big game and a great time to come through and make a big play.”
Somebody has to. The Hawks have scored a measly two goals in 10 periods against the Predators in this series, and while much of the discussion has been on the Predators’ trapping defense, the outstanding play of the Johansen line and the adjustment process for the handful of young Hawks getting their first taste of postseason hockey, it still falls on the Hawks’ biggest stars to lead the way.
And that starts at the top, with the man in the middle.
Toews always has been a streaky scorer, but his occasional offensive lulls are almost always offset by his defensive prowess and all the other little things he does so well. That hasn’t been the case in this series. But if he can get the offense going, it could not only get the Hawks on the board, but help keep Filip Forsberg, Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson off it.
“We need more out of everybody, whether it’s his line or [Artem Anisimov’s] line,” coach Joel Quenne-ville said. “We look across the board. We always find that when we’re in some tough spots, our top guys always find a way to lead the charge and find a way to overcome all obstacles. And we’re going to need them. But we’re going to need everybody else, too.”
Toews’ reputation as Captain Clutch is well-earned, whether it was his five goals in the last four games of the 2015 conference final against Anaheim, or his goal and two assists in the Game 6 clincher against Nashville that same spring, or even scoring short-handed with less than two minutes left to send Game 7 against Vancouver in 2011 into overtime — the last time the Hawks faced a 3-0 deficit.
But you can’t score if you don’t have the puck. So it has to start with taking the puck from Johansen’s line — a trio that hasn’t been very willing to give it up.
“That line’s been good,” Toews said. “You watch video, and it tells the same story that we felt out there on the ice, that wherever you look, they’re there. We don’t get any rush chances, we don’t get much open space in their zone. A huge part of that is how hard their forwards are working.”
It’s not just Toews, of course, Patrick Kane scored what seemed like a big goal at the time in Game 3, but even that was just his second goal in the Hawks’ last two postseasons, spanning 10 games.
There were some encouraging signs in Game 3 — Corey Crawford’s continued strong play, a tenacious effort from the third line of Dennis Rasmussen, Marcus Kruger and Richard Panik and the mere fact that the Hawks even scored in the first place.
But if the Hawks are going to pull off a miraculous comeback, it has to start at the top.
“You need your best players this time of year to step up and be your best players,” Kane said. “Throughout the playoffs, you see some depth guys, they step up and have big games. But at times like this, it’s the top guys who probably need to lead the charge.”
Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.