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Toews feeling good, but won't target return date yet

by Brian Hedger / Chicago Blackhawks

CHICAGO -- Jonathan Toews went through another Chicago Blackhawks practice on Tuesday and said he felt good afterward.

The team's captain and top-line center, who has missed 20 straight games with an upper-body injury has now skated hard on his own or practiced for two weeks straight.

Still, Toews isn't ready to proclaim himself ready to play in games just yet.

"I hope so," he said of potentially playing on Thursday in Minnesota. "I think even when I'm ready to start playing again, there’s still going to be some days where you’re going to have to progress toward feeling like myself again. I haven’t made that decision for Thursday yet. I have another full day before that. I’ll practice with the guys and we’ll see how that goes, and come Thursday we’ll make a decision."

After facing the Minnesota Wild, the Blackhawks will wrap up the regular season on Saturday in Detroit. Still, it's a wait-and-see process for Toews.

Jonathan Toews
Center - CHI
GOALS: 29 | ASST: 28 | PTS: 57
SOG: 185 | +/-: 17
"It's tough to say," he said. "It’s tough to really know 110 percent if the time is right to go back in and play. I’ve just got to know that you’ve got to have that gut instinct that feels right that it’s time to play. Today was a good day and hopefully [Wednesday's] the same way and [after that] we’ll see."

Toews was asked if something that happened to teammate Steve Montador last week in New Jersey also factors into his return. Montador missed 22 straight games with an upper-body injury, then returned in a road game against the New Jersey Devils and got re-injured.

Early in the third period, Montador collided hard with a Devils defenseman and he didn't finish the game. The veteran defenseman is now sidelined again with an undisclosed upper-body injury believed to be related to the previous ailment.

Toews, who was cleared for contact in practices this past weekend, said Montador's situation was just a stark reminder that he needs to be absolutely sure the symptoms are gone.

"I think there's always that point where, you know, you're saying 'Who cares? What have I got to lose? I've waited this long. What's the difference?'" Toews said. "Those thoughts are going to run through your head when you feel like you're on the verge of being ready, but if you know you're not, you've got to follow that instinct."

Otherwise, the result could be even more frustrating and dangerous than the current situation.

"It makes a huge difference," Toews said. "Not only are you putting yourself at risk of re-injuring yourself, but you know that your head plays into so much of how you play the game, too, and how you react and where you are out there. You throw that in there with your conditioning factor, too. I think you've got to be sure before you come back from an injury like this. It definitely makes you think twice, but at the same time stay level-headed about it."

The Blackhawks are currently sitting sixth in the Western Conference despite being tied in points (98) with the Nashville Predators, one point behind the fourth-place Detroit Red Wings. Home-ice advantage for all three Central Division rivals is on the line in this last week of regular-season play, but Toews isn't using his team's situation as a determining factor in when to get back in the active lineup.

"I'd love to play a couple of these games before going to the playoffs," Toews said. "No matter who we get in that first round it’s going to be a tough opponent, no matter what. You see the pace of play, especially in that first round. You compare the first round to any other round, it’s probably tougher than anything else because it doesn’t matter who you get, the teams are excited to get their chance in the playoffs. The play is so much higher than what you’re used to in the regular season. I think if I could have been playing in any game so far I would be. It’d be a great preparation for the playoffs to get a couple games, but I’ll take what I can get at this point."

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville will, too. He said the final call about when Toews returns is now in the player's court ultimately.

"I know that we've still got a couple more days on the ice before the game," Quenneville said. "We'll see how he presents and we'll see. He's progressing enough that he'll make that call and whether he gets in before the end of the year … that will be determined. We've still got some time left if he doesn't get in before the playoffs, but we'll see."

Toews left the lineup following a 3-1 victory on Feb. 19 at home against the St. Louis Blues and his team since that point has gone 12-5-3 without him, with a number of forwards taking on bigger roles and succeeding.

Patrick Kane has done an admirable job centering the top line, while Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp have carried a lot of the offensive load. The play of speedy 26-year old Viktor Stalberg and crafty veteran Andrew Brunette also gives the Hawks' top-six forward group a big boost without their captain and emotional leader.

That's why Toews feels comfortable easing his way back into things.

"Everyone's going out there and doing their job," Toews said. "Like I said, I'm not going back into the lineup until the time is right. I'm not expecting anything. I just want to be part of the team and contribute where I can and hopefully make a difference."

He's also not lowering the bar of expectations for his team just because of his own situation.

"We’ve learned a lot over the last year," Toews said. "I think at this point we’re finally realizing what we’re capable of as a team and if we play the right way, we play together, we’re a tough team to beat. Not being around the locker room much isn’t too much fun, but on the outside looking in you could see we’re gaining that confidence. That whole season you’re just preparing for what kind of team you want to be in the postseason, and right now we’ve got that confidence. We’re going to take it one game at a time when we do get there, but we know we do have the potential to do something special again and that’s what we’ve got to set our sights on."

Whenever Toews does return, Quenneville will have a tough choice to make regarding his top two lines. It would likely prompt Kane's move back to the wing, but which side?

Kane and Hossa both prefer right wing, which is a big reason the two hardly ever played together until Quenneville decided to try Kane at center on Hossa's line this year. Could one of the two end up on the left side of Toews now?

"We'll see," Quenneville said. "Right now the lines have been pretty consistent. I don't really want to change too much in the looks of the lines and the personnel on them. Let's hope with Johnny coming in it's a different look as far as options, but that has been talked about … but we talk about a lot of things."

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