BOSTON — Team Canada’s 2010 Olympic lineup was loaded with centres, but of them all, Jonathan Toews was No. 1, playing on the top line with Rick Nash and Mike Richards, himself a natural centre who’d been moved to the wing.
Often he’d be sent on by Mike Babcock to take faceoffs, and come right back to the bench.
That was his role, and however you slice it, it was a reflection of where he stood in the pecking order of Canadian centremen. Helluva faceoff guy, but ...
Three years later, both Bergeron and Toews have won Stanley Cups, and though it’s far from the whole picture, chances are that whichever of the two plays better in this series is going to be hoisting it for a second time in a week or less.
And at the moment, it’s no contest.
The point was never clearer than in Game 3, when Chicago coach Joel Quenneville played Toews — with one lonely goal in the entire playoffs, pointless in the final — between fourth-line wingers Marcus Kruger and Michael Frolik.
Bergeron, meanwhile, scored his seventh goal of the playoffs (his second of the Cup final) in Boston’s 2-0 win, took half his team’s 56 faceoffs, won a ridiculous 24 of the 28, and led all players with seven shots on goal.
For Wednesday’s Game 4, it appeared Quenneville was going to reunite Toews and muzzled sniper Patrick Kane on a line with big Bryan Bickell, whose offensive flame has burned out after an amazing series against L.A. At least it would give Toews a fighting chance to be a contributor on the scoresheet.
Only one problem: playing two aces together meant they were guaranteed to see far more of Bergeron, in his defensive-centre role, and the Bruins’ brutal/brilliant sweeper, Zdeno Chara, than is good for their health.
Based on what we’ve seen so far in this series — and throughout the playoffs — it is hard to conceive of Canada’s 2014 Olympic team heading for Sochi without a pretty significant role for Bergeron built into it.
“He is by far the best two-way centreman in the league,” said winger Brad Marchand, who may be a little biased in favour of his own linemate. But the other winger, 41-year-old Jaromir Jagr, went further.
“Everybody knows how good he is,” said Jagr. “I’ve never seen anybody be that hungry in the defensive zone.”
At the other end of the happiness scale, Toews — who won the Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward (Bergeron won last year) — has been in a constant struggle to keep a stiff upper lip while playing as honest a game as he can in the midst of an epic slump. But he’s feeling the pressure, all right.
“I think everything is under a microscope now,” Toews said Wednesday morning. “It's the Stanley Cup final. Everything is going to be scrutinized, every little shift, every period. There's going to be more pressure. Of course it's more difficult.”
Things were not, as he spoke, quite as dire as when the Hawks trailed Detroit 3-1 in the second round, but the Red Wings were never this tough to mount scoring chances against. With a power play that went 0-for-11 in the first three games of the final, up against the Bruins’ penalty killers, who had snuffed out 27 straight power plays, the Blackhawks were ailing in all the wrong areas.
“You can talk about faceoffs and our power play. Those were basically the differences in (Game 3),” Quenneville said.
Faceoffs were a killer. A puck-possession team that rarely possesses the puck is in trouble, and the Hawks were, when they lost 40 of 56 draws against the league’s best faceoff team, and its best faceoff man, Bergeron, who won 62 per cent of his draws in the regular season, but 86 per cent in Game 3.
Maybe he did a lot of that damage against Michal Handzus and Dave Bolland, who were a combined 1-for-18. But Toews, who was the NHL’s top faceoff man a year ago, only went 8-for-19, just one more indication of how thoroughly the Bruins have Chicago flummoxed.
It’s been suggested that the Bruins are expert at cheating on the draws, and Toews didn’t exactly disagree.
“For the most part, they're using their feet quite a bit. We have to be a little more vigilant, making sure the linesman is aware of that,” he said. “We can do our part, too, to try to get the edge. It comes down to being more aggressive and competitive in the faceoff dot.”
“I’ve always said, and a lot of people have said, if you’re not cheating you’re not trying,” said Bergeron. “I guess we all cheat. It’s throughout the league, you’re trying to find ways to time it, and I’m going to keep doing that if it works.
“I think it’s about bearing down every time you’re at the dot, but it’s also about talking to your wingers and defencemen to win the battles for you, too. It’s about trying to know their tendencies, and adjust, and don’t just show them one look but a couple different looks, and it’s about help.”
Toews could use some help, too, but increasingly, the focus is on him, as the captain and leader, to move the boulder himself.
“Right now, whether it’s him or our power play, offensively I think we’re all a little gun-shy in that area,” said Quenneville, who must have seen hesitation on several chances Monday. “One thing with Johnny, he’s a great pro. Game in, game out, he leaves it out there. Offensively, maybe he’s pressing. It would be nice to get some production and finish to show for it.”
“I don’t sense whole lot of (frustration),” said Patrick Sharp, who’s been far more effective than any of the Hawks’ other stars. “He’s still contributing in a lot of areas, plays heavy minutes for us. I’m not too concerned with Johnny. He’s a pro. He knows what he’s doing out there.”
But there’s knowing it, and then there’s doing it.
“Absolutely. Every waking moment it's something you think about,” said Toews, facing a huge scrum of reporters but, in a sense, administering his own pep talk.
“Just gotta be hungry. Just gotta be that guy that you don't get denied. No excuses. Gotta find a way. And obviously scoring a goal would be huge. Not just one. I'll take whatever I can get.”
The Hawks’ playoff lives may well depend on it.
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