SAN JOSE, Calif. -
The way the Chicago Blackhawks are going in these Stanley Cup playoffs, it may be time to reframe the debate over the identity of the NHL's best player.
Sid the Kid or Alexander The Great?
For your consideration, we offer the following nomination: Captain Serious.
The guy with the sparse, Wolverine-style facial hair from the movie X-Men.
Yeah, yeah, we know. The playoffs always create a flavour of the day.
Remember Vinny Lecavalier, after the Lightning won the Cup in 2004?
Hart and Conn Smythe winner Evgeni Malkin last year?
But with an 11-game (and counting) point-scoring streak, tying a Blackhawks franchise record, and a string of dominating physical performances in which he simply refuses to be moved off the puck or denied in a one-on-one battle, Jonathan Toews is two victories away from a shot at winning a Stanley Cup, a playoff scoring title and a Conn Smythe, to go with a world junior, a world championship, and an Olympic gold medal - all by the age of 22.
Oh, and he was voted the top forward at the Olympics, where he played so much bigger than his six-foot-two, 210-pound frame.
Moreover, he is a blood-and-guts captain, a true leader, with considerably less flash than Crosby or Ovechkin, a less artful sixth sense than Henrik Sedin, no otherworldly skill set like Pavel Datsyuk, but a heart so big, the Blackhawks had no choice but to make him their on-ice leader in September of 2008.
Only Crosby ever wore the 'C' at a younger age.
"I don't think I've ever seen him this good. Even in practice," said the Denis Savard reincarnate who plays on Toews's wing, Patrick Kane.
"Come on," said Toews, blushing at his side.
"No, but sometimes as an offensive player, you're just feeling it," said Kane. "I think you saw in the Olympics how well he played. The guy is a big-time player. He's fun to play with. Things are clicking for him, for our line, pretty much our whole team.
"It's not just one line doing the scoring. We seem to be having a lot of success. But it all starts with him, to be honest with you."
The San Jose Sharks, who have tried to slow down the Blackhawks without much success through two games of the Western Conference final, were making all the right noises Wednesday morning as they prepared to board their charter flight to Chicago.
But saying it and doing it against Toews and the great young cast around him, are altogether different.
"Obviously I don't want to be in this position, but this is a good time for us to come together here and kind of raise our middle finger and just do it together," said defenceman Dan Boyle, of the widely-held view that the Sharks are, once again, history.
"You can always improve, obviously," continued Boyle.
We're down 2-0 so something needs to get better and I think it can start with the physical play. It's going to take a lot of work."
The Hawks' high-end players haven't taken the Sharks by surprise in this series.
"They're good and they're leading the league in points for a reason," said San Jose captain Rob Blake. "Their transition is good. Their D can get the puck up and make nice little plays and then they fill in and jump in the play too.
"He (Toews) is a very good player. He has the puck a lot. We can do a better job collectively on those guys, but again, when he has the opening and he has his eyes up, he does make plays."
To this point, the Sharks haven't made anyone on the Hawks pay a big physical price.
The trouble with the Toews line is that so much attention has to be paid to 258-pound man-mountain Dustin Byfuglien, in and around the goal crease, that something has to give elsewhere in the offensive zone.
On Toews's game-winner Tuesday night, Kane went serpentine around the Sharks' end, just ragging the puck and looking for an opening, while Toews and Byfuglien camped in front of Evgeni Nabokov.
Nobody moves Byfuglien, and both Toews and Kane have benefitted from his presence - if only the Hawks could get it out of the big fella during the regular season.
Sharks GM Doug Wilson, the longtime Blackhawks rearguard, says there should be no mystery to decode with the Hawks.
"They're so similar to Detroit," said Wilson, whose team just finished defeating the Wings in five games. "We thought the two best teams we faced all year were Chicago and Detroit, after they got all their guys healthy. Detroit has Datsyuk and Zetterberg - well, Toews and Kane are just younger versions of that. Detroit has Holmstrom, Chicago has Byfuglien - Detroit probably has the best defence corps in the league. "We just have to replicate what we did against Detroit."
"They're doing what they're supposed to do. We need to raise our game and have our top guys raise their games," said Boyle, channelling former Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green, in his famous rant about the Chicago Bears.
"They are who we thought they were."
Only better, it seems.