LOS ANGELES — The fist pumps are more emphatic, the yells are louder and the physical confrontations are welcome. Jonathan Toews is edgy as the Blackhawks try to grind out a playoff berth, and his feistiness is spreading.
The Hawks have been admirably defiant, first rejecting that their season was a boondoggle despite a brutally bad start, then repeatedly refusing to concede the wild-card race the last two weeks.
They will not die. Toews, among others, won’t let them. The team that spent a decade competing for Stanley Cups is chasing the last playoff spot, and Toews is adamant that it’s worth the fight.
“You want to play your best hockey, and you want to peak this time of year,” he said. “You want to play playoff hockey. The fans love it. We love it. That’s why we play the game — that intensity, that high of winning a playoff game and not knowing where it can end. You just never know.
“That’s been our goal all year, so regardless of what happens in other games, we’re gonna keep giving our best effort and trying to win and give ourselves the best chance that we can to get there.”
That chance is slim, but there’s a bit more optimism after the Hawks’ surprising 5-4 victory at the Sharks on Thursday.
That momentarily brought them to five points behind the Avalanche with five games left. It’s still highly unlikely, but the Hawks don’t care. Coach Jeremy Colliton already made it clear that he will play this out until mathematical elimination.
After beating Arizona 3-2 in a shootout Friday, the Avalanche hold the second wild-card spot at 85 points, and they have four games left. They’re followed by the Coyotes (82 points), Wild (81) and Hawks (78).
The Hawks have no games left against the other teams in this scrum. They visit the Kings on Saturday before heading into a daunting final week against the Jets, Blues, Stars and Predators.
“We’re not worried about how many games are left,” Colliton said. “We just can’t control that. We’ve got an opportunity Saturday to get two more points, and that’s all we’re going to worry about.
“It’s nice to see the puck go in the net. It’s been an issue for us lately. It hasn’t been all year. We’ve been pretty good defensively over the last little while. And we just need to put them together at the same time.”
It certainly was an odd twist late in the season that the Hawks’ offense evaporated just as they started playing viable defense. After scoring two or fewer goals in six consecutive games, they ambushed the Sharks with three in the first 11 minutes Thursday.
Toews had an assist to Alex DeBrincat for the first goal, then knocked in a rebound for the third. He has been on a mission not only to get the Hawks back in the playoffs, but to re-establish himself as one of the NHL’s top offensive players. He has done that with 33 goals and 76 points, the latter matching his career high and the former being one shy of it.
He came off the two lowest-scoring seasons of his career — 21 and 20 goals — intent on proving that he’s still fearsome with the puck. Toews was spirited on that topic, too.
“I view myself as an offensive player,” he said. “A lot of people maybe started doubting that these last few years, and maybe I had a tough couple of years on the score sheet.
“But when you go through some lows like that, you’ve got to take a hard look at how you’re playing, where you’re falling short, what you can improve upon. . . . Two-way hockey is obviously who I am, the way I play, but I’m trying to find ways to score and just demanding [scoring] out of myself every night.”
The Hawks need as much of it as he can give.