Their bad blood began last season when Thornton pushed Toews after a whistle, and it spilled over into their first meeting earlier this month and again Friday. Come the final minutes of the first period Friday, Toews had finally had enough of Thornton and his bullying ways.
With the Blackhawks defending their own net, Toews skated up to Thornton in the right corner and knocked him from behind into the boards. Thornton fell to his knees from the impact, and an official lifted his arm to signal an impending penalty on Toews. As Thornton was still on the ground, Toews pushed him four more times and then skated away.
Seconds later, the two ended up near the left corner, and Toews wasn’t done with Thornton. Toews pushed him three more times and then grabbed for Thornton’s shoulder. At that point, Thornton was game. The two captains dropped their gloves, danced together and threw a handful of punches before it was broken up after nearly 20 seconds.
"Yeah, he just asked me to fight, and I was kind of shocked and I said, 'Sure,' so that's how it went,” Thornton said. “He hit from behind; it wasn't anything serious. Then he just asked me to fight, so I obliged."
Toews admitted afterward he realized his aggressiveness could have been costly to the Blackhawks. But as it played out, his teammates were driven by their captain’s rare fight and responded by killing off 3:24 of consecutive penalties, adding a goal shortly later and going on to defeat the Sharks 4-1 to improve to an NHL-best 11-0-3 on the season.
“I think the last handful of games, including last season, was always some stuff going on whether it’s after the whistles or during the play,” Toews said of Thornton. “I guess it comes down to players that are maybe trying to get under your skin and test you a little bit. I figured at some point I had to stand up for myself. It came down to that, I guess.”
Toews was given a five-minute fighting penalty, a two-minute boarding one and a two-minute unsportsmanlike conduct. He was lucky to avoid an instigation penalty.
“That’s the unfortunate thing to come out with four minutes in penalties, but obviously the guys did a great job of killing it,” Toews said. “That’s not the type of thing you’re looking for, but if it gives your team energy, that’s great. That’s the effect I guess you’re really trying to impose on your teammates.”
Toews’ teammates picked up on that.
“I think that gritty attitude is contagious,” said Blackhawks goaltender Ray Emery, who had 27 saves. “We have a very skilled team and guys who can put the puck in the net, but when guys are willing to fight for it, that’s big. It was great to see.”
Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, who scored a goal and helped on the penalty kill, also said he was motivated by Toews.
“When he takes a fight like that, you really want to kill that penalty obviously,” Hjalmarsson said. “We got it done.”
As for Toews’ fighting career, he probably doesn’t have a future in a boxing ring. Friday’s fight was just the third of his career. He did tout his ability to stay alive after each fight.
“I’m still here and still standing,” Toews said with a smile. “That’s a good thing, right?”