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Toews' captaincy about having pulse of Blackhawks

by Brian Hedger / Chicago Blackhawks

CHICAGO -- "Captain Serious" is a nickname that's stuck with Jonathan Toews since the age of 20, but it might not fit the Chicago Blackhawks captain anymore.

Toews, 27, not only detests the moniker, which belies his sense of humor, but he's outgrown it. After twice accepting the Stanley Cup from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman before the age of 30, Toews has become more than just a serious face and elite two-way center.

"Captain Heartbeat" might be a better description now, as he prepares to lead the Blackhawks into the Western Conference Final against the Anaheim Ducks.

"He has a great pulse for every piece of the team," said retired forward Jamal Mayers, a television analyst who won the 2013 Stanley Cup with Chicago and studied Toews from a couple locker stalls away. "It doesn't matter if you're the 14th forward or the No. 1 defenseman or the starting goalie. He knows when to pick somebody up, when to kick 'em in the butt, and it's that pulse that amazes me at such a young age. Usually you don't get that until you're in your 30s."

Toews has possessed it since he was a teen, going back to his time as captain of Canadian teams that won gold medals in the 2007 and 2008 IIHF World Junior Championships. The difference now is he's gathered a lot more experience. Toews was the captain for the Blackhawks' last two Stanley Cup titles, but also paid close attention to the dynamics of the locker room.

He's learned about leadership from grizzled veterans, nervous rookies, struggling teammates and coaches alike. He's a good listener, a continual student and always seeks something from each interaction to file away for future reference.

"It's part of the learning curve as a captain," said Toews, who will lead the Blackhawks into their fifth Western Conference Final in the past seven seasons. "I think early on, being captain at such a young age, you kind of have an idea of what you're supposed to do and what a captain means and what you're supposed to bring the team, on and off the ice. As time goes on, you realize sometimes less is more and sometimes there are things that need to be said and sometimes you just need to make sure your game is going well, and let that be the example. There are all sorts of different situations."

The fact he's realized all of that so quickly is what impresses Mayers, who played 15 seasons in the NHL for five teams.

"Most guys are singular and thinking about [themselves] and worried about their own game at that age," Mayers said. "He has that ability to have a pulse on everything. He's just a winner. He's a once-in-a-generation type of player."

Toews' leadership was put to the test this season.

The Blackhawks finished third in the Central Division, had a turbulent second half and lost leading scorer Patrick Kane for the final 21 games of the regular season with a fractured left clavicle. Toews went through his own statistical roller coaster as well.

He started slow, picked it up gradually and finished strong after Kane's injury. During the quiet start, he remained patient. In the midst of a frustrating stretch for the team, he spoke out when he felt it was necessary. After Kane went down, he stepped up.

"We all knew we had to play better and we had to step up, especially offensively," Toews said. "For myself personally, there were some disappointing stretches this year. Not a lot of pucks were going in, so I think that just added to the pressure more than anything, just the desire to want to produce a little bit more."

Toews scored a power-play goal Feb. 24 to make Florida Panthers defenseman Alex Petrovic pay for the cross-check that led to Kane's exit, and then began a scoring binge. He charged to the top of the Blackhawks' points lead, finishing with 28 goals, 38 assists and 66 points in 81 games, and scored memorable game-winning goals late in the third period of games at the Winnipeg Jets and Buffalo Sabres.

Against the Sabres, with less than two minutes left in regulation, he scored twice in 47 seconds to tie the game and then win it. He nearly got a hat trick with Buffalo's net empty.

"That's one of his things," Chicago defenseman Johnny Oduya said. "He has that ability, both physically and mentally, where he really drives and he wants to win."

Mayers put it another way.

"He has an uncanny knack for stepping up at the right times," Mayers said. "I'm not surprised at all. He could be in the top five or 10 in scoring [in the NHL] if he chose to take more chances offensively, but that's not how he plays the game. He doesn't cheat on anything, as far as his compete level on the defensive side to the offensive side. He sets the right example."

It will be no different heading into Game 1 of the conference final against the Ducks at Honda Center on Sunday (3 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports). Toews will again put the team first despite having four goals, seven assists and trailing only Kane for the Blackhawks' scoring lead through the first two rounds of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It's just what he does and what he'll continue to do the rest of his career.

"I'm still learning and still will be for a long time," Toews said. "There are always new challenges that thankfully I don't have to deal with by myself. There's a great group of leaders in this room. I've just kind of embraced it and enjoyed the challenges."

Author: Brian Hedger | Correspondent

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