EDMONTON – In typical Jonathan Toews fashion, he brushes off a question about why it seems like the big stage is always where he shines the brightest.
The Chicago Blackhawks captain loves winning, but there is almost nothing he hates more than talking about himself.
That’s all well and good, but whether you’re looking at the complete body of work or his exceptional effort in this Qualifying Round series with the Edmonton Oilers, it’s hard not to talk about Toews’ play.
In a series that featured two of the best players in the NHL on the opposition roster, it was the 13-year veteran that had the biggest impact.
Whether it was coming up with big goals, setting up his linemates or doing the little things like winning draws and blocking shots while protecting a one-goal lead, Toews always seemed to be in the middle of the action.
On the series-clincher from Dominik Kubalik, it was Toews that took care of the dirty work, winning a puck battle down low with Ethan Bear before finding the Calder Trophy nominee alone in the slot for a one-timer at 8:30 of the third period to snap the 2-2 tie.
Game. Set. Match.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys that don’t have a lot of playoff experience showing what they can do — that gets you going and motivates you more than anything,” said Toews, who finished with four goals and seven points in four games. “I’m just trying to do my part to do what I can to follow suit with the rest of our team.”
Modesty is a great quality, but with all due respect to the Winnipegger, he’s not the one following suit.
He’s leading the charge. Of that, there is no doubt.
“He was one of our best players and not just offensively,” said Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford, who made 43 saves in Game 4. “He had a big block there in the third [period], when they were pressuring. When a leader is doing that, it just follows throughout the lineup.
“He’s won some Cups and he knows how to play in these games.”
Does he ever.
Toews is no stranger to post-season success. He’s a natural-born winner.
The laundry list of accomplishments is long, but bears repeating.
Two World Junior golds (2006 and 2007), two Olympic golds (2010 and 2014), a World Cup of Hockey title (2016) and another gold from the World Hockey Championship (2007) to go along with three Stanley Cups with the Blackhawks (2010, 2013 and 2015).
Toss in a Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2010 and a Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward in 2012-13 for good measure.
The Oilers’ dynamic duo combined for seven goals and 15 points in the series and enjoyed some personal success, but they’re now waiting for the results of Monday’s NHL Draft Lottery while the Blackhawks are going back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2017.
“It’s a big challenge, obviously,” Blackhawks head coach Jeremy Colliton said when asked about Toews going up against Draisaitl and McDavid. “But Johnny has been around a long time and he’s got a pretty immaculate track record when he plays in the playoffs. To me, his biggest attribute that he has is his compete level.
“He wins a 50-50 battle on the winning goal and just finds a way to come up with the puck. He came up big for us throughout the series in those situations. He’s a great player.”
Never mind the fact it took a pandemic to get the Blackhawks into the expanded tournament.
They didn’t make the rules, but they certainly made the most of their second chance.
And don’t think for a second that this upset is going to leave the Blackhawks in the just-happy-to-be there phase when they meet the Vegas Golden Knights or Colorado Avalanche.
Although times have been tough in the Windy City, this is a franchise that measures success in Stanley Cup banners.
There’s a reason for that.
With young guys like 2019 first-rounder Kirby Dach and 2018 first-rounder Adam Boqvist getting their first taste of the post-season, advancing in a series like this as the 12th seed is a great way to expedite the development process.
“Like we all know nowadays, you’ve just got to sneak in there and in that first round anything can happen,” said Toews, who was the third-overall pick in 2006 and has now played 1,075 games, including the post-season. “You see it right now too. For us, it didn’t really matter what seed we were. We knew what we were doing later in the season that helped us play great hockey and win games and we got right back to that.
“It’s fun to be able to play hockey at this time of the year.”
The Blackhawks understand they’re not the same juggernaut they once were when they sipped from Lord Stanley’s mug with regularity, but they’re determined to show that they’re back on the upswing.
This was an important step in shifting the pendulum back in the other direction.
As far as sending a message to those who thought this group might not contend for a while and that maybe it was time to consider breaking up the band, Toews doesn’t waste much time thinking about those narratives.
“There’s always going to be unwarranted praise and criticism,” said Toews. “Our core group has always done a good job of not listening to either. We missed the playoffs for a couple of years and you’re bound to have people kind of come down on you a little bit.
“I don’t think any of that has phased us. We were pretty eager to get this chance and show what we can do. Technically, we just made the playoffs now. So, the real fun begins. We worked pretty hard in this series to beat a good team and we’re going to have to dig deep and keep finding better and better in the next one.”
As long as Toews is playing at this level and demonstrating that will to win, he’s going to give his team a chance to be competitive.
That’s all an underdog squad can really ask for.