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Win, lose, or draw, the story of the night tonight was always going to be about the return of Chicago Blackhawks Captain Jonathan Toews to the active lineup. The last time Toews dressed for the Blackhawks was on January 28. Following that game, he made the decision to pull himself from the active roster to give his body time to rest and recover from the toll the season had taken on him as he continues to deal with Chronic Immune Response Syndrome and long-COVID symptoms.
After returning to the ice and practicing with the Blackhawks this week, he made his return against the New Jersey Devils tonight. In a 6-3 loss, Toews played 14:00 minutes of ice-time with an assist, one shot on goal, and won eight of his 12 faceoffs.
Dougie Hamilton opened the scoring in the second period for the Devils with his 20th goal of the season, becoming the first defenseman to reach the mark since the franchise was located in New Jersey. The Blackhawks would answer back in the middle frame with Tyler Johnson scoring his 11th goal of the season to make it a 1-1 game with just over eight minutes to play in the period.
Lukas Reichel would tip-in an Andreas Athanasiou shot after an great individual effort to give the Blackhawks a 2-1 lead, but it would be short-lived as Erik Haula and Jesper Boqvist, brother of Adam, scored quickly to give the Devils a 3-2 lead into the third period.
The Devils would extend their lead in the third period after a dominant shift that led to the 4-2 goal coming from defenseman Ryan Graves. But the Blackhawks were not going away quietly, while being out-played all game, they gave the Devils a fight tonight and it was Jonathan Toews setting up Andreas Athanasiou for his 16th goal of the season to make it a 4-3 game.
But the good feelings and momentum only lasted for so long against this vastly superior Devils team and it would be Timo Meier scoring his 37th goal of the season to make it a 5-3 game late in the third period before Dawson Mercer added an empty-netter to seal it at 6-3.
With the loss, the Blackhawks remain in 32nd in the NHL based on point-percentage with a 24-46-6 record and 54 points in the standings.
Jay’s Hit: Blackhawks Fans Show Jonathan Toews Love
A few weeks ago, when we weren’t sure if Jonathan Toews would ever play another game for the Chicago Blackhawks, I wrote about how it was an unfair ending for a guy who, perhaps more than any Blackhawk of the dynasty, was deserving of a heart-felt sendoff from the fans. Saturday, it’s exactly what he got, and hopefully, he’ll have two more United Center opportunities for more.
Walking into the building, it seems four of every five jerseys I saw had #19 on them.
When Toews took the ice for warm-up, the crowd welcomed him. When he was the last Blackhawk off the ice after warm-up, he was cheered off the ice. When he was announced in the starting lineup, the crowd let him hear it.
As tumultuous as the last few years have been for The Captain, it’s nice to see fans put those memories aside to acknowledge everything Toews has given to this franchise.
We’re quick to forget that for a significant part of his tenure, he was considered one of the top two or three players in the game. In fact, there was a point where “Toews vs Sidney Crosby” was a real conversation, and Toews would hold his own. In 2014, Jonathan Toews was voted the best player to build a franchise around by his NHLPA peers.
A lot has changed since then. On Saturday night, we ran a poll that asked “Would you rather see Jonathan Toews retire or play for another team?” 86% of respondents wanted him to retire.
Blackhawks fans will have two more chances to send The Captain off, be it to retirement or to a new team next season. If you’re reading this and have tickets to those games, make sure he hears you.
Greg’s Hit: Once the Puck Dropped, It Was All Business
After being on the ice for another excellent rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” by Jim Cornelison, it was back to business for Toews. The Blackhawks have missed his proficiency at the dot while he’s been absent, but he lost the game’s opening draw. Head coach Luke Richardson eased the captain back into the flow by starting him on the fourth line with Reese Johnson and Austin Wagner.
Toews got himself a nice scoring chance early in the game and tried to go upstairs, but MacKenzie Blackwood kept the puck out with his shoulder. Later in the opening frame, he passed up a point-blank shot on the power play to look for Jason Dickinson. The decision led to an audible groan from the United Center crowd. I don’t think they were mad at him; they wanted Toews to light the lamp like the good old days.
Richardson moved Toews up to the top line with Anthanasiou and Riechel. He picked up the primary assist on the Athanasiou goal for his 15th helper of the season.
After the goal, this line was buzzing, and Toews was driving the offense. Unfortunately, it was close but no cigar for them. The captain finished his night with the assist, one shot on goal in two attempts, and won eight of his 12 faceoffs while playing exactly 14 minutes.
I had no expectations for Toews heading into tonight’s tilt. I didn’t care what he was going to give the Blackhawks; I was just happy that he was healthy enough to be back in the lineup. He’s a step slower and not as effective as he was back during the dynasty years, but every once in a while, you still see flashes of that player. The passion and the effort are there, even though Father Time is still undefeated. Regardless of the outcome, getting our likely last few games out of Toews is a nice treat to wrap up a long season.
Mario’s Hit: One Down, Six To Go?
One day at a time. That’s how Jonathan Toews is taking what might be his final weeks with the Chicago Blackhawks and as an NHL player as this season comes to a close. We didn’t expect Toews to return to the lineup with seven games remaining on the schedule, but he felt good enough to come back and make the most of this final stretch of games. After playin 14 minutes and helping produce a goal in the third period, Toews spoke to the media about how the night went.
“Definitely finding my way a little bit. The first period was rough,” Toews said following the 6-3 loss. “But second, third period, I started to feel a little bit more comfortable. Sometimes when your timing gets better, then you’re not overexerting yourself, as well.”
Toews began the game with Austin Wagner and Reese Johnson as linemates, but finished the game playing with Andreas Athanasiou and Lukas Reichel, where he setup Athanasiou for the goal. I’d like to venture a guess that he’ll play with that group on the road trip, knowing where he feels like his game is at after tonight.
One of the best moments of the night wasn’t Toews making the play to setup the Athanasiou goal, but rather what coming out on the ice for warmups and being announced in the starting lineup meant for him and for the fans. Every time Toews was shown on the video board, or stepped on the ice before the game, he was met with a huge roar from the United Center crowd. It was a packed arena tonight, for good reason, and Toews heard it all.
“I’m just trying to focus and concentrate on the game. But there’s no doubt you hear that when you step on the ice. It felt good to get that coming back tonight.”
Could this have been his last game at the United Center? I really hope not. But with how Toews’ body has been responding, you never know. Toews knows how he’ll feel tomorrow, but he is still expected to go on the road trip with the team and play as many, if not all, of the final six games on the schedule. He’s just taking it one day at a time, and so should we.
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