Change of linemates, change of fortune for former North Dakota center Toews

Before Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final, Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville might have considered placing his captain and former North Dakota standout Jonathan Toews on the side of a milk carton.

The offensively talented Toews had been anything but in the first three games of the series and, for that matter, in the entire Stanley Cup playoffs, having scored just a single goal in the team’s previous 20 games.

Add that Chicago trailed the Boston Bruins two games to one in the best-of-seven series and that the Blackhawks were shut out in Game 3, and it seemed the scoring touch was simply missing for this team.

But instead of placing an all-points bulletin for Toews’ scoring, Quenneville instead put the sixth-year center on the top line with Patrick Kane and Bryan Bickell. The “all your eggs in one basket” approach worked.

Toews scored a goal to break a 1-1 deadlock in the second period and spark his team’s offense. Though both teams exploded on the night for five goals in regulation, making Toews’ tally almost forgettable, the shifty center then set what arguable was the biggest screen of the night as defenseman Brent Seabrook blasted home the game-winning goal at 9:51 of overtime to knot the series at 2.

“I like that line. Big picture getting reunited, they seem to have some chemistry,” Quenneville said of reuniting the Kane-Toews-Bickell triumvirate.

That chemistry was apparent on Wednesday as the line combined for two goals, three assists and 11 of Chicago’s 47 shots on goal.

You won’t find Toews’ name on the box score for the overtime goal. The 6-foot-2 center didn’t get credited with an assist despite using his frame to first battle Boston big-man Zdeno Chara and then, upon winning the physical battle in front, taking the eyes away from goaltender Tuukka Rask. The end result was a goal that has shifted the series momentum.

“For the most part there’s just those little battles, whether it’s with Chara or their other defensemen,” Toews said of the physical confrontation in front of Rask that led to the game winner. “All our forwards were really keen on winning them tonight. We made a point of it in our locker room. We scored a couple goals off of that.

“Ugly goals, we don’t care. We’ll find a way. It’s something we need to keep doing.”

Toews’ goal, his first since a Game 5 victory over Detroit in the Western Conference semifinals, was hardly of the ugly variety. Using his speed in the offensive zone, he fed a puck from below the goal line that ended up at the point. Seemingly forgotten by the Bruins defense, Toews parked himself at the right post and perfectly deflected a Michal Rozsival wrist shot.

The first goal in 11 games for Toews certainly felt like a monkey off the back for the former North Dakota standout. And with this series even, regaining offensive confidence couldn’t come at a better time.

“I think it makes a world of difference for you when you finally see one go in,” Toews said. “The last couple days Seabrook has been coming up to me, asking me what I’m thinking about.

“I have to give him the right answer. I’m thinking about scoring a goal,” Toews said with a big smile.

The fact that Toews went 11 games without a goal and has scored only twice this postseason shouldn’t be a major surprise (though he did score seven goals in the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup run of 2010). As talented as the pivot is offensively, he’s even stronger defensively.

Toews took home the Selke Award this season as the NHL’s best defensive forward. In the playoffs, when teams clamp down defensively (Wednesday’s Game 4 aside), anyone will tell you that strong defense is as critical as scoring a goal.

But Wednesday, goal scoring was as much about helping earn a “W” for the Blackhawks as it was for regaining the team’s confidence, having scored just a single goal in the previous two games.

“Game 3, we were disappointed with our offense,” Quenneville said when asked about reuniting Toews with Kane and Bickell. “So we went to the well. I’m sure they’re excited about returning together.”

Now, while there is little doubt the trio will continue to be together in Saturday’s Game 5, the question on many minds is whether this line can continue to produce offensively against a Bruins team that even after allowing six goals in Wednesday’s game possesses the top defense in the NHL’s postseason.

For a two-way player like Toews, scoring is obviously enjoyable but he also realizes this series likely will be won on the defensive side of the puck.

“It was fun to see the puck go in as often as it did [on Wednesday],” Toews said. “We know we can be better defensively. But we’ll use that confidence and try our best to pounce on them in Game 5.”