- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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CHICAGO -- In a series in which the difference between winning and losing has been a sliver every night, the man wearing No. 19 for the Chicago Blackhawks is beginning to find his legs.
You can easily overthink things when breaking down a series, but sometimes it's just plain simple. After missing the final 22 games of the regular season with a concussion, Jonathan Toews is more and more looking like Jonathan Toews.
And that's the most important thing to know as the Blackhawks try to avoid elimination again Monday night against the Phoenix Coyotes.
"I feel like I'm getting closer and closer every game,'' Toews told ESPN.com on Monday morning. "I think that first game coming back, I was playing with a lot of adrenaline. You don't want to think too much, things just tend to kind of happen in situations like that. After that, reality kind of sinks in.''
After putting up a goal and an assist in Game 1, looking like he had never missed a beat, the next two games were tougher for the 2010 Olympic star, which was only natural after missing all that time. He went without a point in two games, and the Blackhawks fell behind in the series.
"You're thinking about some of these plays, you're making them a bit slower I think the last game, especially with being back on the penalty kill, I got back in a groove and was ready for that next shift and the next one and the next one,'' said Toews. "It just felt like I was better able to cope with the speed of the game and the amount of minutes I was getting. I'm just feeling more comfortable.''
He looked like his old self in Game 5, scoring in overtime to keep his team's season alive.
A year ago, the Hawks were in a similar spot, fighting for their lives against Vancouver. They went down 3-0 in that series and won three straight and pushed Game 7 to overtime before falling short. That experience one year later could prove important as the Blackhawks try to rally back from a 3-1 series deficit against the Coyotes.
"We're kind of in the same situation, yeah," Hawks star Patrick Kane said Monday morning. "It was a huge win the other night and it's nice to be home now. Hopefully, we can get a win here and then you can see what can happen in a Game 7. Five straight overtimes, it's been fun hockey."
That the Blackhawks would view this as "fun" tells you a bit about their mindset, and about their experience. Cup winners in 2010, nearly miracle workers last year against Vancouver, it's a group that's been there and done that. They might fall short against the Coyotes, but the challenge certainly doesn't faze them.
"We've seen a lot,'' said Kane. "Some of us in here have played in the Olympics too, and that was quite a ride as well. I think a lot of us in here at such a young age have seen a lot of things. It's good for experience to know what to expect in these situations. At the same time, it's a new challenge every time. It's fun.''
In the opposing dressing room sits a team with the exact opposite level of playoff experience. The Coyotes are trying to reach the second round for the first time since the team moved from Winnipeg to the desert. They're so close, they can taste it.
"I have no idea, I've never done it,'' captain Shane Doan said Monday morning when asked what a series win would be like. "When I do it, I will tell you exactly what it feels like. It would be huge for our group."
And this is a building they like playing in. The Coyotes are 4-0 in the United Center this season. The anthem and the roar of the crowd here, among the loudest in the NHL, doesn't intimidate the plucky Coyotes.
"Our group doesn't shy away from adversity at all,'' head coach Dave Tippett said Monday morning. "We've come in here and won two in the regular season and two in the playoffs. So obviously our guys, the building or the noise, that's not a factor for us."
Both teams are trying not to look ahead, but you can bet they see that usual powerhouses Detroit, Vancouver, San Jose and Pittsburgh are all gone. The journey to the Cup finals seems more wide open this season.
"It's an exciting thing for a lot of teams out there," said Toews. "They probably have that belief that if they get through this round they're going all the way. We win tonight, we give ourselves a chance for a Game 7. Just looking at the big picture, you can think that it's anybody's year. If you believe in yourselves, there's no telling what can happen."
In a season when seemingly anyone can advance to the Stanley Cup finals, the Blackhawks and Coyotes are riding opposite ends of the experience spectrum, writes Pierre LeBrun.