Print and Go Back ESPN.com: BlogsColumns [Print without images]

Thursday, April 12, 2012
Captain comeback

By Melissa Isaacson
ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- It would be easier perhaps, if it was all about Jonathan Toews, if somehow the Blackhawks' chances against the Phoenix Coyotes and their hopes beyond the first round of the NHL playoffs could be tied solely to their captain.

The problem is that the Hawks had some of the same issues in the final 22 games of the regular season as they had before Toews was sidelined by a concussion on Feb. 19.

Viktor Stalberg
Patrick Sharp said Marcus Kruger (center) makes things go for him and Viktor Stalberg.

And so you are forced to look elsewhere in trying to figure out what these Blackhawks are made of, if they have any of the championship timbre they possessed two years ago, and if that is enough.

"I hope so," Patrick Sharp said earnestly this week. "This time of year there's always questions, whether it's from the outside or whether it's yourself asking if you can step up and perform. [But] there are a number of guys in here who have done that with the Blackhawks and with other teams, so whenever you have success and past experiences, you can draw from that for sure."

You can draw from that and you can also draw from what is similar to that magical run in 2010, when Kris Versteeg and Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd played their roles to the hilt, or at least to the extent that they fit perfectly within the core of Sharp, Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith.

That is why these Hawks are in a better position than the hangover season of 2010-11, when reaching a seventh game of their first-round loss against rival Vancouver was viewed as something of a consolation after a disappointing regular season.

Where there was Byfuglien two years ago, there is now Andrew Shaw. Where there was Versteeg and Ladd, there is Marcus Kruger and Viktor Stalberg. Not exact replacements, mind you, but each possessing enough of that special quality, say their teammates and anyone who has watched them this season, to give the team hopes of challenging for the Cup again.

And Johnny Oduya has unquestionably helped turn things around defensively since his arrival in late February.

"We do have some experience," coach Joel Quenneville said. "We have some guys who have played in big games and are known for that challenge ... [and] we have some new guys who are excited to be part of it, which gives us some energy as well. It's been an interesting regular season."

Shaw, a fifth-round draft pick last year, has emerged from where you might imagine a fifth-round pick to emerge, which is not a place of great expectations, and he now finds himself on the checking line with Dave Bolland and Bryan Bickell, having scored 12 goals with 11 assists this season.

At 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, no one will mistake Shaw for Byfuglien, but the rookie's ability to camp in front of the net is a skill the former Hawk used to great advantage during the Stanley Cup run and something no Hawks fan is likely to forget.

"That's my home right there," Shaw said. "I'm going to plant myself right there and hopefully bang a few in."

Kruger is similarly unimposing physically but is as responsible as anyone on the team for shoring up the middle without Toews.

"Krugs is the guy who makes it all happen for [Stalberg] and I," Sharp said. "He goes to the puck areas hard, he's always at the net in the offensive zone and he's always the first guy back in the defensive zone. It's nice to see that maturity and patience in his game for such a young kid."

As for Stalberg, he took the increased opportunity he received without Toews on the ice and responded with a career season, scoring 22 goals with 21 assists. And now the "crazy-fast" Staly, in the words of more than one teammate, has made Quenneville resist any thoughts of disrupting the second line upon Toews' return.

Now, oddly, Toews almost qualifies as the X factor. Because the Hawks have played well without him (13-5-4), it is not beyond the realm of possibility they could go a long way without him should his concussion symptoms return.

But if he bounces back and provides the sort of leadership and even a decent percentage of what he offered as the Conn Smythe recipient, well, let's just say you feel significantly better about the Hawks' chances.

Asked if there might be some awkwardness at first with Toews fitting back in, Sharp said he did not expect that to be the case.

"I've been out for long stretches and come back and [that's] the time when I felt a little nervous leading up to the game," Sharp said. "But Johnny has played in a number of big games and big moments in his career already, and I anticipate him to come back and pick up where he's left off."

Toews, however, was not quite as encouraging, saying Monday that it is "not very realistic" to expect him to be at close to full strength.

"I just want to go out there and do well and do the little things well," he said. "I think at this point, that's all I need to do. ... I'm not going to go out there and try to do too much and try to score three goals right away. I'm just going to play hard and let things happen."

You do worry about him. Toews said although he would not go so far as to say he still has symptoms of the concussion, he is practical about what he may be facing, and just hearing him talk about it is scary.

"There are always some feelings there that are going to come back," he said. "It's probably going to be the same thing in a game. At this point, I feel very confident about that and most of all it's just about protecting yourself and making sure you're not putting yourself in a position where you can get hit or something like that can happen again, feeling strong enough to make sure that doesn't happen."

It is all the more reason the focus should be on the Hawks' role players. The precedent is certainly there.