With Jonathan Toews leading the charge, Blackhawks start critical stretch strong

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Jonathan Toews gets tangled up with Rangers right wing Jesper Fast during Wednesday’s game in New York. (AP Photo)

One way or another, Corey Crawford’s injury was going to be the turning point of the Blackhawks’ season. Engaged in a seasonlong dogfight for points, closer to the bottom of the standings than the top, and suddenly without the most important player on the team, the Hawks either were going to find that bunker mentality and rally, or they were going to fall apart.

And given the way it started, with a brutal effort in Vancouver that was their third consecutive defeat, the smart money was on the latter. The Hawks have been streaky all season — they won four of five, then lost five in a row, then won five in a row, then lost those three straight — and it looked like they could be in for a prolonged nosedive, with Crawford on the shelf and Artem Anisimov soon following.

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After all, when you’re turning to a 32-year-old goaltender with no NHL experience (Jeff Glass) and an untested rookie center (David Kampf) to save your season, the season already looks lost.

“We’ve been slow to find our identity as a team this season,” Jonathan Toews said. “During that five-game win streak, I think that’s when we really saw who we can be as a team, how we can play. But we can’t be streaky. We’ve got to nip things in the bud when they go sideways on us, and remind ourselves what we’re capable of, and be the team we know we can be.”

That starts at the top. And Toews, who hasn’t looked or felt like himself for much of the past two and a half seasons, has so far answered the call. With a goal and an assist in each of the past two games, both of them utterly dominant performances for his line, Toews helped the Hawks start their most critical stretch with a 2-0-1 road run.

Yes, Glass deserves a share of the credit. Yes, Patrick Kane, Nick Schmaltz and Ryan Hartman have been excellent. Yes, Jordan Oesterle continues to be a terrific surprise.

But the Hawks go where Toews takes them.

“He’s the captain of our team and one of the best players in the NHL,” said Vinnie Hinostroza, who looked right at home as Toews’ new right wing in New York.

“When your best players lead the charge, your team’s going to be dangerous every night,” coach Joel Quenne-ville said.

It is just two games. And Toews has been just as streaky as the Hawks have been. But his timing couldn’t be better. The whole team’s timing, really. Down to their No. 1 goalie, No. 2 center and at the bottom of the standings, the Hawks haven’t faced a situation like this since the down-to-the-wire 2010-11 season. Even the nine-game losing streak during the 2011-12 season wasn’t this dire, because the Hawks had plenty of padding in the standings.

“Sometimes you need to dig a little deeper,” said Patrick Sharp, who stepped up and broke out of a 12-game scoring drought of his own with the game-winning goal in New York.

If only Sharp can find his scoring touch again. If only Glass can keep this storybook run going. If only Hartman can keep crashing the net and playing with the swagger that helped him score 19 goals last season. If only Oesterle proves to be the real thing and not just a blip. If only the Hawks can keep the winning streaks while shortening the losing streaks. If only Toews keeps playing like the Toews of old.

There is a long way to go and a lot of teams to climb over, but if the Hawks can keep their heads above water during this indefinite period of time without Crawford and Anisimov, they’ll come out the other side a more confident, more dangerous, deeper team.

It is a lot of ifs. But the early returns are better than anyone could have reasonably hoped for.

Follow me on Twitter

@MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

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