O’Reilly spent the first six years of his NHL career with the Colorado Avalanche, a frequent opponent of Toews’ Chicago Blackhawks. The 25-year-old O’Reilly said nothing ever came easy against Toews.
“He’s just there,” said O’Reilly, who now plays for the Buffalo Sabres. “You turn around he’s there, then the puck’s gone the other way. It’s just kind of relentless. You’re playing against him like ‘Come on, make a mistake or something!’ But he’s always playing the right way and so dangerous in creating too.”
Toews is now 45-1-1 with Team Canada since 2006, including Saturday’s 5-3 win over Russia that secured the Canadians a spot in the World Cup of Hockey final.
The 28-year-old centre is far from the only reason for the team’s success, but he offers a unique – and perhaps irreplaceable – set of skills.
Toews is the super utility tool for head coach Mike Babcock, a player who can slot into any role in any situation and perform admirably. Outside of Sidney Crosby, excelling without compare on the World Cup stage right now, there’s probably not a more important player to Canada on the international stage.
“Toews does a lot of stuff so (Crosby) can do what he does,” Babcock said after Canada’s win over Russia, which was highlighted by Crosby’s three-point performance.
Toews was more under the radar, if still central to victory. He played more than 19 minutes, second to Patrice Bergeron among forwards. His line completely shuttered Russian captain Alex Ovechkin who was held to one shot (and attempt), never coming close to finding the scoresheet in almost 21 minutes.
Toews has unmatched abilities as the centrepiece of Babcock’s plan of attack against opposing top lines. The Winnipeg native is quick enough to line up against speedier talents, strong enough at six foot two and more than 200 pounds to tussle with heavier forces and skilled enough to pose a threat offensively. Toews has scored at least 20 goals in every one of his nine NHL seasons.
Tied for third in World Cup scoring with four points in four games, Toews also helped tame the Russian power play (0-3 with two shots) in Saturday’s semifinal win and won 16-of-24 faceoffs, including 64 per cent in the defensive zone.
Few in hockey can offer Toews’ all-around abilities according to Logan Couture, the San Jose Sharks forward and a World Cup linemate.
It starts with hockey IQ that Couture said “is off the charts.”
“He may not have blazing speed, but he finds himself in the right spot,” Couture continued. “Good stick. Good defender. You can go on and on and on about the things he does well.”
An all-star centre himself and frequent teammate with Canada, Ryan Getzlaf said he most admires how Toews anticipates the action, which allows him to be in the right spots in both the offensive and defensive zones.
“Johnny’s an incredible player,” Getzlaf said. “He does a lot of things well.”
Toews has 13 goals and 36 points during that nearly unblemished decade of international hockey, which includes two Olympic golds, one world championship and two world junior titles. Also a three-time Stanley Cup champion as captain of the Chicago Blackhawks, Toews has become perhaps best known for thriving on the big stage.
He beat American goaltender Jeff Frazee three times in a semifinal shootout at the 2007 world junior championships in Leksand, Sweden. Three years later in 2010, a 21-year-old Toews unexpectedly shined for Team Canada’s gold-medal winning squad at the Vancouver Olympics, leading the team with eight points. Four years after that he scored the eventual winner in a 3-0 gold medal win over Sweden at the Sochi Olympics.
All nerves seem to vanish for Toews during moments of tension. He said that’s a result of early success in those “make-or-break moments.”
“If you’re able to rise above it and succeed I think it gives you confidence that you can always play at the next level and prove yourself when the next opportunity comes around,” Toews said.
His lone regulation loss while playing for Canada since 2006 came in the preliminary round of the 2010 Olympics, a 5-3 defeat against the Americans. The other loss was more painful.
Ilya Kovalchuk scored on an overtime power-play winner, the third of three straight unanswered Russian goals in the gold medal game of the 2008 world championships. Toews still remembers the sting he felt watching the Russians celebrate on Canadian ice in Quebec City.
It was a rare defeat for one of the more accomplished players in Canadian hockey history.
“You can’t win ’em all I guess,” he said.
Hopeful victory at the World Cup notwithstanding.