SUNRISE, Fla. — Who knows exactly what Jonathan Toews was actually trying to do when, after knocking the puck off Mark Pysyk’s stick along the goal line, he flung his stick out as the puck fluttered toward the net.
“Exactly what happened,” Toews deadpanned. “We’ll just leave it at that.”
What happened was Toews somehow swatted the puck out of mid-air with a tennis-style backhand, sending it bouncing between the legs of Roberto Luongo for a second-period goal in the Blackhawks’ 4-1 victory over the Florida Panthers on Saturday night. A couple weeks ago, Toews probably doesn’t make contact with that puck, and the Panthers easily clear it. But after a lengthy and excruciating stretch of bad hockey, things are finally starting to go the Hawks’ way.
They’re now 4-1-1 in their last six games, with the first five coming against playoff-caliber teams. As they enter a brutal stretch of five games in seven days starting Monday night against the Anaheim Ducks, the Hawks are playing their best hockey since the first week of the season.
Toews, who as captain usually has to answer for his teammates after a loss, repeatedly said the bounces would come. And on Saturday night, after his first three-point night of the season, and after Brandon Saad finally broke out of his own snakebitten slump, Toews felt vindicated.
“I think we’re starting to settle in as a team,” Toews said. “We’re starting to see what it takes for us to be a good team, and what it’s going to take to win games the rest of the season [with] how tight our conference and division [are].”
The last time the Blackhawks visited BB&T Center, everything went wrong in a humiliating 7-0 defeat. On Saturday night, just about everything went right, starting with an utterly dominant first period.
“Night and day,” coach Joel Quenneville said.
By the time the first period was over, the Hawks had a 2-0 lead. They had outshot the Panthers 21-7. They had nine high-danger scoring chances to the Panthers’ one. Saad had seven shots on goal — the most in a period by a Hawks player since Dustin Byfuglien on Feb. 6, 2008 — and scored for just the second time in 16 games, following up John Hayden’s goal with one of his own.
“It’s just staying positive,” Saad said. “You know it’s going to come, but when it comes, it feels good. … Just so happened tonight was the night.”
If there was a nit to pick, it was how the Hawks let the Panthers right back in the game early in the second period, giving up a Jared McCann goal 66 seconds in and getting outshot 13-1 in the first six minutes. But Patrick Kane scored his third goal in two games at 7:03 to take the life out of the Panthers, and Toews finished them off with his fortunate fling at 17:08.
Corey Crawford made 37 saves — many of them difficult ones — to stave off the desperate Panthers’ push.
“We’re getting better starts,” Toews said. “And if we get ahead in the game, we always expect other teams to play better throughout the game, especially the second and third periods. I think we’ve been answering well.”
The Hawks are still a flawed team, and are just clinging to a wild-card spot. But they’ve averaged nearly four goals per game during this 4-1-1 stretch. The lines and pairings have been consistent, and increasingly productive. The defense is more involved in the offense, and Crawford continues to be brilliant.
And they’re certainly feeling better about themselves than they were two weeks ago, when they couldn’t score, couldn’t win, couldn’t do much of anything.
“We were in a tough spot there,” Quenneville said. “Unfamiliar territory being out of the playoff spots, and looking at how competitive it is in our division and our conference. So we can’t be happy.”
Well, they can be a little happy.
“Its fun to win,” Toews said. “Especially on the road when guys put in the effort like that. We can’t get away from that.”
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