The dam finally broke Tuesday night. Jonathan Toews had been playing great hockey for the past couple months, and further trended in the right direction after being paired up with Nick Schmaltz and Richard Panik recently. It was just a matter of time until he had one of those games.
The Minnesota Wild were the victims of Toews’ five-point explosion, which included his fourth career hat trick and two assists, in a 5-3 Blackhawks win. The numbers speak for themselves, but for a player who was on the receiving end of some criticism and doubt earlier in the season, it felt like a statement.
Here was a big game against a divisional opponent, the sort that Toews has always gotten up for, and he straight up whooped them. It was one of the best performances by any player this season.
After scoring the first goal of the night, Toews skated up to the boards and pounded the glass while screaming. For a game in late February, there was little doubt Toews was all in.
This is one of the reasons why the Blackhawks never flinched during Toews’ drought. There were signs that he wasn’t the same player over the past year-plus, when his numbers were down across the board and the eye test didn’t exactly argue to the contrary.
But Toews is the franchise cornerstone, and the Blackhawks were always going to be patient in trying to find him the right position to succeed. Sure, maybe someone making $10.5 million annually shouldn’t need so much help, but Toews was always the kind of player whose offense comes from rhythm and chemistry, rather than being able to singlehandedly wreck defenses.
Now he’s seemingly found that chemistry, and it’s from two incredible sources: a rookie and a former journeyman. Schmaltz and Panik are no joke, though, and seem to be figuring out how their skills mesh with one of the best players in the world. It’s no coincidence that, after being paired with those two, Toews finally hinted to the media that he wouldn’t mind some stability. What he really seemed to mean was, “Let me keep playing with Schmaltz and Panik.”
And it’s becoming clear why. Toews is a good all-around offensive player who plays well in small spaces and likes to use the boards to stretch the defense. Schmaltz is a gifted playmaker with a better shot than some give him credit for. And Panik has developed into an impressive finisher who can not only rifle home wristers from the slot, but wiggle his way in front of the net for chances, too.
Maybe it’s not quite the plethora of skills that the Blackhawks boasted when Toews was paired with a young Brandon Saad and in-his-prime Marian Hossa, but after spending over a year shifting around the pieces to find the right recipe, Joel Quenneville has found one. And it is delicious.
Toews has 20 points over the past dozen games, which is tied for the best 12-game stretch of his career. He almost certainly won’t keep that up, but after recording just 80 points in 139 games from the start of 2015-16 through mid-January, he’s regained the scoring touch that elevated him among the best players in the sport.
There were a lot of factors potentially impacting Toews’ lengthy slump, from linemates to injuries, but whatever was ailing him appears to be long gone. This is the Toews that you’ll be telling your grandkids about while remembering the days before the NHL expanded to 75 teams (mild exaggeration).
Suddenly, Toews is up to 42 points in 51 games this season. His 0.82 points per game would be his best since 2013-14, and he’s putting more shots on goal than any season since 2012-13.
As I wrote BEFORE all this happened, if Toews keeps playing like this into the postseason, other teams should watch out. Now I REALLY feel that way after his first five-point game in nearly six years. And the captain, in classic fashion, focused on the third and fourth lines in his postgame comments. Quenneville made sure to give credit where credit is due, though.
“Jonny’s done so many things for us,” Coach Q said. “He’s an amazing player, as competitive as you’ll ever find. What a great leader, and great captain.”