Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews under fire for losing his cool
Captain realized he ‘needs to grab the rope and start pulling’ as team on verge of playoff elimination
CHICAGO — In Friday morning’s Detroit Free Press sports section, Jonathan Toews’s surname appeared in five different headlines. That may be a modern-day, single-edition playoff record.
So yes, apparently it is kind of a big deal that the Chicago Blackhawks captain, mired in another of the epic scoring droughts that have plagued him a surprising number of times in his playoff career, kind of lost his cool in the second period of Game 4.
In fact, there might have been a sixth headline if anyone had picked up on the visit defenceman Brent Seabrook — himself a near nonentity in the Western Conference semifinal — paid to the penalty box to settle Toews down after he took his third penalty in a span of 5:43.
Because that’s something you don’t see every day. Usually, the only time a teammate visits a penalized player is to deliver his stick and gloves or helmet or assorted other paraphernalia after a fight.
Seabrook confirmed Friday, back in Chicago in preparation for Saturday's fifth game (5 p.m. Pacific time, CBC), that he was worried about the captain’s frame of mind, and concerned about its effect on the team, given the Blackhawks’ precarious position in this series, in which they now trail the Detroit Red Wings 3-1.
“After his third one, he looked frustrated,” Seabrook admitted, “and I don’t know if that was a reason for the penalties — it was a little bit of bad luck on his part with his stick — but I just tried to calm him down.
“We need him, he’s the best player on the team, and our leader. And you know, if the rest of the group sees him like that it’s going to trickle down, so we need him to be focused and ready, and I just told him to sit down and take a couple of deep breaths and be ready to be back out there. We need him.”
Seabrook wasn’t the only one who noticed.
“I think over that stretch of minutes, there was a couple of penalties he felt weren’t merited, or you could argue,” said coach Joel Quenneville. “Whether that was part of it, getting (Toews) to the bench was something that ... I was looking to chat with him myself.”
“But he’s a true leader. He’s everything that represents our organization in the right fashion, and you couldn’t ask for a better captain or a better competitor than Johnny. And sometimes his frustrations show because he wants to do things the right way, and he will continue to do it the right way.”
It was about as passionate a defence of a slumping player as a coach is apt to make when his team faces elimination largely because his best players haven’t produced.
And that, in fact, is what makes all the singular focus on Toews unfair. Yes, he ought be scoring more. Yes, he is the team’s best player. But the other big shooters on the team —- Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp — were all either barely visible in the two games in Detroit, or equally unable to pull the trigger against the Wings’ exceptional 200-foot defensive game, and goalie Jimmy Howard.
Toews, to his credit, never ducks the spotlight, even when it’s unkind. He didn’t deserve the penalty that cost the Blackhawks the decisive goal, by Jakub Kindl. He was nabbed for high sticking, but in fact all he did was lift the stick of Justin Abdelkader, who lost the handle on his own twig and had the butt end of it hit him in the face. But he wasn’t complaining about it Friday.
“I mean, I understand that what happened in the second period wasn’t a good thing,” Toews said. “I don’t attribute it to me losing my temper. Obviously, I was a little bit careless with my stick and it ended up costing me, and costing my team.
“But when things go well for our team, sometimes maybe I get more credit than I deserve, and I think same goes the other way. And I understand that’s part of it. Our best players need to be our best players. We need to lead, we need to grab the rope and start pulling for the rest of the guys, and it starts with myself.”
Toews won a Conn Smythe Trophy in 2010, leading the Hawks to the Stanley Cup despite scoring only one goal in their last 11 playoff games. That’s a testament to the completeness of his game, and there are few more respected players in hockey.
But the Hawks scored one goal in the two games in Detroit. Their offence is about to starve to death. Ditto, the power play. Toews is a big piece of both.
“We all take the burden for being down 3-1,” said Seabrook, who has seen his own ice time plunge to a shade over 12 minutes in Game 4, while his longtime partner Duncan Keith played over 30.
“(Toews) is playing well. He hasn’t been able to find the back of the net and I’m sure that’s frustrating for him. And it doesn’t help with you guys talking about it every day. But he’s one of the best players in the world, he’s a hard worker and he’s going to work through this.”
“Well, one of the things that I like about my game is that if they’re not going in for me, I can do a lot of other things,” said Canada’s best player on the 2010 gold-medal winning Olympic team.
“But I think in this given circumstance, (like) every guy in the locker room, if they think they’re the ones who can help us break through as a team ... I put some pressure on myself to be that guy and to score a big goal, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”
Toews has been largely unable to shake free of the pestering presence of Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg, though Quenneville should be able to make that happen with the last line change at home.
“I’m not as worried about him as maybe you guys think I should be,” Toews said. “He’s a good player, he’s doing a good job of playing smart defensive hockey, but you know, it doesn’t mean I’m not getting chances and not getting to the net. Those chances are coming and at some point they have to go in.”
That’s what he’s telling himself, anyway.
In the meantime, the Hawks are trying to invoke the ghosts of comebacks past, notably the 2011 series against the Vancouver Canucks, when they were down 3-0 and rebounded to force Game 7 and only lost on Alex Burrows’s overtime goal.
“It just goes to show that things like that are possible, that we were very, very close to winning that series,” Toews said, “and I’m sure Detroit knows and we know that this series is a long way from being over.”
“They’ve obviously got the momentum right now,” Quenneville said. “The big picture looks bleak, but one game can turn everything around. And that’s what we’re looking for.”
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Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews gets his stick up on defenceman Jonathan Ericsson of the Detroit Red Wings during the second period of Game 4 of their Western Conference semifinal series at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit on Thursday, May 23, 2013.
Photograph by: Gregory Shamus, Getty Images