Jonathan Toews earns assist and ovations in return, but Blackhawks lose to Devils

Toews earned an assist in 14 minutes of ice time in the Hawks’ 6-3 defeat, but the fact he played at all was the notable part Saturday.

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Jonathan Toews returned to the Blackhawks’ lineup Saturday against the Devils.

AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

The highlight of captain Jonathan Toews’ return to the Blackhawks’ lineup Saturday was an assist on a goal that briefly cut their deficit from two goals to one in the third period.

So, no, it won’t exactly make his list of career accomplishments. But it would’ve been difficult for him to do anything in the Hawks’ 6-3 loss to the Devils — their eighth defeat in a row — that would have cleared that extremely high bar.

How Toews played, after all, never was going to be the main takeaway. The fact he played at all — the fact he donned a red Hawks jersey during a competitive game at the United Center — always was destined to be the truly significant part.

It was Toews’ 1,061st career regular-season game. But considering it appeared, until recently, that he might not surpass 1,060, it felt quite a bit more meaningful than that.

‘‘There’s always a little bit of nerves before a game like that,’’ Toews said. ‘‘It didn’t take me long to just relax, have fun and go out there and make the plays I see in front of me. And trust my teammates. That’s all I could really do.’’

Added coach Luke Richardson: ‘‘It was good to have him back. He was a big presence on the bench, very vocal.’’

Toews logged exactly 14 minutes of ice time in 18 shifts, starting out centering the fourth line with Reese Johnson and Austin Wagner before Richardson bumped him up to the first line with Andreas Athanasiou and Lukas Reichel in the third period.

The crowd of 18,778 showered Toews with constant applause from the moment he stepped onto the ice for warmups. He tried to concentrate the best he could, but he admitted there was ‘‘no doubt’’ he heard and appreciated the roars.

He lost the opening faceoff to Nico Hischier yet still finished 8-for-12 at the dot, maintaining his league-leading percentage in that category.

Eight minutes into the first period, Toews grabbed the puck and turned a sharp-angle shot into Devils goalie Mackenzie Blackwood’s midsection, notching his lone shot on goal. He had a prime shooting opportunity in the slot on a power play minutes later, but he tried to force a pass instead.

Once he moved up the depth chart, he earned an assist by finding open space in the Devils’ defense, receiving a pass from defenseman Nikita Zaitsev, keeping his head up and finding Athanasiou for a net-front tap-in with 10:57 left. In his first game since Jan. 28, it represented his first point since Jan. 19.

‘‘[I’m] definitely finding my way a little bit,’’ Toews said. ‘‘The first period was rough. That’s a fast team, fast game. No matter what, when you miss some time, there’s going to be some catching up. But [in the] second and third period, I started to feel a little bit more comfortable.

‘‘Sometimes when your timing gets better, then you’re not overexerting yourself, as well. Overall, I definitely feel like I’m in a good place, progressing since the time off. It’s just [about] working and trying to get better every game for the rest of the year here.’’

After Athanasiou’s goal, the Devils added insurance on a wraparound by Timo Meier and an empty-net goal by Dawson Mercer to pull away. They finished with a 36-10 advantage in scoring chances, including 8-2 during Toews’ five-on-five ice time.

The loss kept the Hawks in last place in the NHL standings with six games left.

‘‘We tried these short little chips, and [the Devils are] good at turning that puck around,’’ Richardson said. ‘‘They’re the No. 1 team on the rush in the league . . . and we got caught there too much.’’

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