It's very easy to see what's happening to Jonathan Toews right now, after an awful performance from the young Blackhawks' captain has his club in a very "serious" 3-1 hole against arch-rival Detroit.
Toews has been manhandled by the Red Wings in the series, particularly by his counterpart, Wings' captain Henrik Zetterberg. It's not like Zetterberg is some bum—his elevated late-season play carried Detroit into the playoffs, then inspired them in a seven-game series win over Anaheim in the first round. Now, Zetterberg is doing what he does best in the postseason—shutting down the opposing team's top player.
The immediate response following the Blackhawks 2-0 loss to Detroit on Thursday night was despair, followed by a media firestorm blaming Toews for the loss. There's a certain amount of truth and fairness applied there: Toews uncharacteristically took three penalties in a span of five minutes and 34 seconds.
The Wings power play finally broke through against the Blackhawks' penalty kill, scoring on a Jakub Kindl goal that bounced in off the post with one second remaining during the second of Toews' three penalties.
But just how fair is it to vilify the young Blackhawks' superstar after a horrid performance in a bad series? It's important to note that he is still just 25 years old. For reference, Detroit's emerging star Damien Brunner, a rookie, is 27, 25 months older than Toews.
I'll invoke the classic Michael Jordan quote here when describing Toews: "Maybe it's my fault. Maybe I lead you to believe it was easy, when it wasn't."
You better believe I just compared a struggling Chicago superstar to Chicago's finest athlete. Though Toews has only led the Blackhawks to one championship thus far, he has plenty of time to keep going. And why not begin on Saturday, with the Hawks' backs against the walls?
I'm not saying that Toews is the end-all, be-all factor for a Blackhawks comeback; let's be real here. He's having a very bad series, and there's no indication that he'll pick up his play. But for some reason, the media is treating him like he's Derrick Rose. Unlike the Jordan comparison, this one is unfair.
Toews is like Rose in the sense that he is the young, talented, face of the franchise and of the city. He is unlike Rose in the sense that he has far more talent surrounding him in a game that involves much greater levels of parity than basketball. In a sense, Toews has it easier since he has superstar teammates to play with, while Rose does not have that luxury.
Is it fair to place the majority of the blame for this series on Toews?
Unlike Rose, Toews' led his team to his sports' No. 1 seed heading to the playoffs, and with that distinction comes added scrutiny in the face of failure. Rather than focus on the fact that there are 18 skaters and a goaltender who collectively have not gotten the job done, the name selected for the blame game goes to Toews.
He is the captain, and having been successful before,he is expected to succeed again. But what happens when he doesn't?
Toews has had quiet playoff rounds before, even when they mattered most. In 2010, when the Blackhawks defeated the Philadelphia Flyers in six games to secure their first Stanley Cup in nearly 50 years, he was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Then 22, Toews accumulated 29 points in the postseason.
Of those 29 points, Toews added only three against Philly to take the Cup. All three were assists in a series in which Chicago scored 25 goals.
Scoring just one goal has been a problem for Chicago and for Toews of late; the captain is still scoreless in the postseason through nine games. But rather than place all the blame and the pressure on him, it's time for someone else on Chicago to step up.
It's ludicrous to blame one man for a team's collective efforts that have fallen unbelievably short of the loftiest of expectations.
You can blame all the players.
Chicago has scored two goals over their three consecutive defeats at Detroit's hands, and Patrick Kane has both of them.
You can blame the coaching.
Joel Quenneville has been outsmarted by Mike Babcock since Chicago's Game 1 win and isn't getting anything out of his lines, no matter how much juggling he does. Brent Seabrook, an annual All-Star and Triple Gold Club member with Toews, received just over 12 minutes of ice time last night. Why?
You can blame bad luck.
The Blackhawks must have left Detroit last night tormented by the sound of posts ringing in their ears. In last night's contest, this made a major difference. As Corey Crawford so eloquently put it, "We go three off the post and out and they go one of the post and in," referring. of course, to Kindl's goal, as Daniel Cleary's later mark came via the empty net for the 2-0 Detroit victory.
You can blame bad play.
The Hawks' power play has been abysmal and their shot selection highly questionable. A string of bad penalties and bad blood has clouded their judgment. They've played Detroit's game instead of playing their own.
If you want to blame Toews, then you do so accepting the fact that he is part of the team and part of the problem, but not the problem. There is no magical solution or answer that will instantaneously fix the Blackhawks as they try to recover and accomplish something that less that 10 percent of teams do when trailing 3-1 in an NHL playoff series: come back.
That comeback starts on Saturday night, when thousands of Chicago fans, a good deal of them likely wearing Toews' No. 19 sweater in red, white or black, walk past the Jordan statue to pack the United Center. When they leave in victory or defeat hours later, the statue will remain, a tribute to Chicago's greatness and its resilience, its unwavering determination to persevere through adversity.
Surely that is what the Hawks face now; the long upward climb out of the misery of three tough losses, with the knowledge that the latter two could have gone the other way. They could easily be the ones up 3-1, having the time of their lives as they look to close out the series against their greatest and oldest conference rival.
No one knows this better than Toews. Maybe he'll pass the statue as well and reflect on what it means and reflect on Jordan's legacy or the statue's symbolism. Maybe he'll pass right by it, serious in his demeanor as always and not give it a second thought, focused on the task at hand.
Maybe it's my fault, he might think.
Or maybe, you're just making excuses.
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