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Toews rides a wave of optimism back to Chicago

Jonathan Toews looks remarkably alert at this moment, minutes after emerging from the Chicago Blackhawks' triumphant charter flight home. This is the blessing of youth - and a sharp contrast to bleary-eyed teammate Patrick Sharp, who took the first turn at the microphone at Signature Flight Support, near O'Hare airport, where the team's charter from Vancouver landed late Saturday afternoon.

One day earlier, Toews drove a stake through the hearts of the Canucks' playoff hopes with a brilliant five-point performance. This afternoon, Toews was explaining why the team cannot take anything for granted heading into Sunday's fifth game, a possible elimination game with Chicago ahead 3-1 in the series. Toews said all the right things: The Blackhawks will take nothing for granted. The final game is always the most difficult to win. Etc. etc. There is a reason why teammate Patrick Kane calls Toews Mr. Serious. There is an uncommon gravitas about the Blackhawks' young captain that seems oddly out of step with his age, 22.

But it doesn't take away from this stark reality: That for the second season in a row, the Blackhawks' emerging young nucleus of players is outperforming its opposite numbers with the Canucks. Toews and Kane have done a better job of both leading and marshaling their troops than the Sedins have done on the other side; and as coach Alain Vigneault so memorably put it the other night, Roberto Luongo has been the second best goaltender in this series. Ouch.

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Toews suggested Saturday that points on the score sheet seem to fascinate everyone, but it isn't always indicative of how someone's playing. Fair enough - although in the last three games, as he took over the playoff scoring lead, the points have been hard to ignore, 17 in all in his last seven games; 18 in 11 games at GM Place, counting the Olympics. A pretty impressive run here.

"Some nights, you're not going to play your best and everything kinda goes in for you," said Toews. "Obviously, (Friday) night was one of those nights where you're around the net and everything seems to find you. Pucks are coming to you, and you get lucky.

"You work hard over an extended amount of games and sometimes you don't get those breaks and it gets frustrating, but it's playoff hockey. You've got a find a way to stick with it and eventually you are going to cash in and help your team in a big way like that. It's all I've been trying to do."

"Johnny's a special player," reiterated Blackhawks' coach Joel Quenneville. "He epitomizes what leadership is all about. When the stakes get higher, he seems to rise to the occasion.

"He had a good stretch there during the Olympics. We felt last year during the regular season, he got better as it progressed. Playoffs, same thing. This year, exactly the same way. So he likes the stakes a little higher and seems to relish the environment."

It is hard to imagine that just last Monday, about 70 minutes into the series, the Canucks appeared to have the series under control - a 5-1 win in the opener, a 2-0 lead in the second game, and on the way to quieting one of the loudest buildings in the league, the United Center.

Since then, it has been all Chicago. Cumulatively, the Blackhawks hold a 16-6 edge in goals since that point in the series; and Vancouver's bugaboo from the opening round - the curious inability to kill penalties - reared its ugly head again Friday. Officially, Chicago was four-for-eight with the man advantage, but a fifth goal, by Tomas Kopecky, came just seven seconds after an Andrew Alberts holding penalty expired. At one point in the Kings' series, the Canucks surrendered goals on six consecutive power-play chances.

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"You're always looking at special teams as being the potential differential," Quenneville. "Our power play got more productive as we've gone along in this series. Every power-play opportunity is different when you're out there, but we've got a lot of weapons, a lot of firepower, a lot of skill - guys who can make plays and see plays. Their patience level is very high-end. Sometimes, they can be tough defend.

"For Johnny - it was one of those nights where we got a couple of fortunate breaks, but at the same time, being in the right spot helps.

So put a leaky penalty kill up there with so-so work from Luongo and a perplexing inability to keep their cool up as the primary reasons for the Canucks' plight. All three are linked naturally and all of them have been happily exposed by Toews, the dynamic young Winnipeg-born centre, who is following the pattern he established in the Olympics on behalf of Canada's men's team in these playoffs.

Then, as now, Toews started a little slowly, needing to get a few games under his belt to find his stride. By the end of the Olympics, he was possibly Canada's best forward. Same in these playoffs. Toews just gets better with every successive outing. Sometimes, you forget that he's just 22 and subject to the same ups-and-downs that every young player - even the creme de la creme - faces in the development curve.

Even Sidney Crosby doesn't score the decisive goal every time out. But Toews seems to have made it his habit to save his best work for when it matters most - not a bad trait to have if the goal is to end a Stanley Cup drought in Chicago that stretches back to 1961. In both playing style and demeanor, Toews is most often compared to Steve Yzerman or Joe Sakic, two players with understated personal styles that let their play do most of the talking. In watching Toews grow and mature right before our eyes, it may be safe to say that what the scouts saw in him at an early age - and what the fans in Vancouver witnessed during his world junior appearance there a few years back - is exactly what the Blackhawks are getting, to their ever-lasting satisfaction.

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More

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