When Jonathan Toews was mired in the midst of the slowest start since a Fred Thompson presidential campaign -- in terms of goals, Toews was 0-for-October -- he kept saying the new weight of the Chicago Blackhawks captaincy was not contributing to his scoring drought.
He now admits he was fibbing. At least a little.
"Not that I was saying it at the time, but I was frustrated," Toews said. "I was trying to do too much. I thought about everything except my own game. Maybe (once you) keep your mouth shut for a few nights, keep it simple and start worrying about your own game, everything becomes a little more natural."
When the interminable season stopped being a snapshot and became a flowing video, Toews came into focus as one of the NHL's most dependable forwards. Helped by what coach Joel Quenneville says was a change in Chicago's down-low defensive coverage, Toews eventually found a rhythm and now figures to wind up the regular season just about where he should be: a near point-a-game player who does exemplary work on both sides of the puck.
Although he had just six points the first month of the season and did not score a goal until his 13th game (Nov. 9), Toews, who won't turn 21 for another four weeks or so, began the week with 30 goals and 33 assists. He also was a plus-6, ranked 11th in the league with a 55.1 faceoff percentage, and was playing with a level of maturity that should capture the rapt attention of Hockey Canada executives, who might have to figure out a way to shoehorn both Philadelphia Flyers captain Mike Richards and Toews onto a rich-in-natural-centers Olympic team.
Richards and Toews are the NHL's two best young captains -- remarkably disciplined and responsible. Richards is the better defensive player because of his strength and ornery nature, but Toews, in his second season, is one of the NHL's top 10 two-way players and has a bit more offensive polish. Linemate Patrick Kane remains the shiny bauble that dazzles fans. He was minus-8 while having just one more point than his center and might win a scoring title one year, but there is a better chance that Toews, the third player taken in the 2007 draft, will win the Hart Trophy before Kane captures an Art Ross.
"Pretty focused," Chicago winger Patrick Sharp said of Toews, who last July became the third youngest captain in NHL history behind Vincent Lecavalier and Sidney Crosby. "He leads by example. Rarely takes a game or practice off. He's held a few meetings this year. He's spoken well, said all the right things.
"I don't want to say he cares more than anybody else, but every little detail is the end of the world to him. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing. Last year there were times when he'd kinda go off the deep end with the little things that were bothering him, or after a tough loss. This year you can see it still bothers him, but he's got the ability to file it and go on. He realizes it's not the end of the world."
Toews played two seasons of college hockey -- he helped North Dakota to two Frozen Four appearances -- in a subset of the sport in which every game really can seem like the end of the world. The weekends are packed, the season is short, the playoffs are brisk. . . the pressure builds exponentially, unlike in Chicago, which essentially secured a Western Conference playoff spot weeks ago and now is just trying to get home-ice advantage for the first series. Toews, whose rookie season was reduced to 64 games because of a strained left knee, simply needed to adjust the idle on the motor that he always keeps revving.
"There's extra motivation," he said of the captaincy. "You can't take one night off. All the guys will be responding. The way you play definitely reflects the way the team plays. There are going to be those nights where you're down a couple of goals, things aren't going right and you pick up your play and the team kinda jumps on board. I always wanted to be a player like that. I just never expected to be there so early.
"I've learned to do a better job of just staying loose and enjoying the game. Keep the mood light. You don't think about the game until it comes. I think my skin is getting thicker. I've been learning not to be so serious and not worrying about the game before I have to."
For all of you who have been working on flow charts to figure out which bubble teams have the best chance to make the playoffs, here's some advice: don't bother.
The schedule can be a misleading indicator of a team's chances, even a team like St. Louis, which started last Sunday with a presumably fatal homestretch of six of their final seven games on the road. The Blues started with a win in Columbus and on Wednesday face a Chicago team that will have played a time zone east in Montreal the previous night. Going back-to-back on Thursday in Detroit surely will be a challenge, but remember that the New York Islanders blanked the Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena last Friday.
The point is: as obvious as some things might appear, the teams still have to play their games. With the pressure off, even non-playoff teams like the Islanders, Ottawa and even Atlanta have been formidable.
A better predictor than schedule is goaltending. The Blues' Chris Mason might be the second-best goaltending Mason in the NHL this season behind Columbus rookie Steve Mason, but he is stopping almost everything right now. The white-hot Craig Anderson has shoved Florida's nominal starter, Tomas Vokoun, to the bench, which would be even more worrisome in nervous Montreal if the Canadiens' Carey Price weren't starting to look a little more like himself in the past week. If Dwayne Roloson can stop 51 shots every game -- that was highway robbery last week against Anaheim -- Edmonton has a shot. If not, the Oilers will be nipped at the wire.
Congratulations to the University of Vermont for reaching the Frozen Four next weekend in Washington, D.C. Almost a decade after a hazing scandal that left a proud program in tatters -- Martin St. Louis, John Leclair, Tim Thomas and Sharp are among UVM alums who have played in the NHL -- new coach Kevin Sneddon has put the school back, honorably, on the national hockey stage. Boston University is the prohibitive favorite, but Vermont and Bemidji State, the former Division II powerhouse, should tug the heartstrings.