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Toews scoring key to Blackhawks' climb

Mar 21, 2017 3:08 AM

Attempting to decipher the Central Division puzzle seems quite easy: look to Chicago’s Jonathan Toews instead of Patrick Kane.

A former member of the North Dakota Fighting Sioux (now Hawks), Toews is the undisputed leader of the Blackhawks despite what mainstream media tells you.

Toews, centering the club’s top line, is suffering through a down season in goal production, yet when he scores, it always seems to matter. All but two of his goals came in victories this season, yet one of those came in a late tally that forced overtime to at least salvage a standings point.

Although he may not reach his career-low of 23 goals – he enters the week with 18 – Toews’ second-half has triggered Chicago’s sonic rise to surpass the Minnesota Wild on top of the Central table.

Included was a hat trick as part of a 5-point performance – he had a hand in all five of his team’s goals – to beat the host Minnesota Wild on Feb. 23. The triumph started the Hawks on a roll of seven straight wins (and 12-of-14 and 17-of-20) to overtake Calgary (franchise record-tying 10 straight wins) as the hottest team in hockey.

Sure, Kane and Artemi Panarin, both wingers, wrack-up more points, but the puck first goes through Toews. This is why I see the Hawks as Western Conference champions in May.

Toews get hot after a difficult loss to St. Louis. Meanwhile, the Wild, seeking their first-ever division crown, have really hit the skids. The latest setback was especially heart-breaking. How does a team trailing 3-0, rally to tie with a four-goal second period yet still lose? That’s what happened Sunday in Winnipeg, for Minnesota’s seventh loss in eight outings.

This for a club that has local hockey fans more interested in the recently-concluded state high school tournament in St. Paul (the hometown of Phil Housley, the state’s lone product in the Hockey Hall of Fame who played after 1950).

Since winning a club-best 12 consecutive games in December, the Wild maintained their chances at the division until – you guessed it – a difficult loss to St. Louis.

Yes, the Blues might slip into the playoffs (especially since the demise of “my” L.A. Kings), yet they remind me of the original Blues when they were an expansion franchise.

Fifty years ago, every other NHL club hated playing St. Louis for being an under-skilled team that played an extremely physical game to win – a style thatwas duplicated by the Philadelphia Flyers, leading to that city’s lone pair of Stanley Cup championships.

The Blues may not play that style anymore – no wonder the Kings keep eliminating them in recent playoff series – yet, too many times the defense counts on goalie Jake Allen to bail them out. It’s not a formula for postseason success.

The same holds true in Nashville, where Predators goalie Pekka Rinne is the main reason they remain in the playoff hunt.

Defenseman P.K. Subban is enjoying the absence of the media spotlight in Montreal, but his plus/minus rating is below even. Despite the big money spent on Subban in the Shea Weber trade, it’s Matt Irwin who is playing best on the blue line, even though his last regular NHL gig came in San Jose two years ago.

Metro mayhem

In hockey’s version of March Madness, the Metropolitan Division finds the Washington Capitals commencing on their annual swoon toward playoff disappointment. Instead, streaking Columbus could overtake both the Caps and defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins to secure its first-ever division crown.

The Blue Jackets, a member of NBC Sports Channel’s list of MIA teams (along with any team from Canada), are winners in 7-of-8 to enter the week in second place.

Goalie Sergei “Bob” Bobrovsky is among the NHL leaders in almost every goalie category. He should be; he’s the one who beat out L.A.’s Jonathan Quick for the Vezina Trophy in 2013 when the Kings won the Cup.

Now is the time to get to know Cam Atkinson, the team’s leading scorer, and become even more familiar with nationally anomymous Alexander Wennberg of Sweden, who centers the Jackets’ top line.

Meanwhile, the other three-horse race finds the N.Y. Islanders battling Toronto and Tampa Bay from the Atlantic for the second wild card berth. The Rangers own (and will keep) the other berth.

Elsewhere, we already know Ottawa needs a miracle to edge Montreal for the Atlantic title. It is possible Boston could jump past the pair and shock the world with an unforeseen division crown.