Unlike 2012, Toews healthy, comfortable for playoffs
Jonathan Toews isn't a big fan of the unknown.
The captain of the Chicago Blackhawks, who turned 25 Monday, is a lot like his coach in this way. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville likes predictable, consistent players almost as much as he likes victory cigars. That's why he loves Toews, who prides himself on giving a consistent, elite-level effort and being as predictable as possible.
"He's only 25, but he leads by example first and brings it every single night," said 38-year-old Blackhawks forward Jamal Mayers, who has played with a number of good leaders in his 15 NHL seasons. "He sets the entire tone for our team."
It's arguably Toews' biggest leadership trait, sparking a nickname (Captain Serious) that's fitting even if he doesn't particularly enjoy it. Yet, a year ago, Toews found himself in a different situation.
After missing the final 22 games of the regular season with a concussion -- watching his team struggle just to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs without him -- Toews didn't know what to expect heading into a Western Conference Quarterfinal series against the Phoenix Coyotes.
"Last year was very difficult [after] being out for almost two months, not playing any games, and going right into the playoffs," Toews said. "You try not to think about any of that stuff and just go out there and play and make stuff happen ..."
It just doesn't always work out, which Toews learned. Phoenix defeated Chicago in six games, the first five decided in overtime, and Toews was held to two goals and two assists for the series. His second goal did win Game 5 in overtime, but it was little consolation to Toews in the handshake line after Game 6 in Chicago.
This time around, as the Blackhawks prepare for their playoff opener Tuesday against the eighth-seeded Minnesota Wild at United Center (8 p.m., NBCSN, CBC), Toews expects to be himself again. The unknown is history, and Toews is back to the player who led Chicago to the Stanley Cup in 2010 and was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason's most valuable player.
Toews played 47 of 48 games this season, and only sat out the final game in St. Louis for rest and precautionary reasons. He tied right wing Patrick Kane for the team lead with 23 goals and added 25 assists in a memorable regular season that Chicago started with an unprecedented 24-game point streak.
The Blackhawks simply were a different team than the one that sputtered without their captain last season.
"That void in your lineup was something that, when you get him back into the lineup, you really appreciate what he brings to our team," Quenneville said of Toews. "And this year he's been, game in and game out, on his game. He's so useful and versatile and effective in all areas and all situations ... he's a top guy in the League. People mention him as a Hart Trophy [candidate] and that's what he brings."
Along the way, Toews has centered a top line that's had rookie Brandon Saad at left wing almost the entire season. It gave Toews a glimpse at a younger player who, in terms of drive, reminds him of himself a little bit -- and it gave Saad a chance to watch Toews closely.
Though Toews doesn't need extra motivation, Saad said there might be some after the frustrating experience of last season.
"He's a leader and wants to play," Saad said. "He's hungry to play and he's had a great year showing that, so I don’t think anything's going to change in the playoffs."
Not even with the inherent pressure that's on the Blackhawks, who spun their great start into winning the Presidents' Trophy for the second time in club history. Toews welcomes the challenge of making this regular season count for more than historical notations.
"That's what's exciting about being one of those guys and being a captain," he said. "I think that's the type of responsibility you want and it's something you take pride in. That's what playoff hockey is all about. When there are challenges, you just have to find a way to overcome them. So I'll be ready to do that as just one player in this locker room and everyone else will be, as well."