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Toews practices in regular spot; Game 1 a possibility

by Brian Hedger / Chicago Blackhawks

CHICAGO -- Nothing is official yet, but Chicago captain Jonathan Toews seemed to take another step Monday toward returning from an upper body injury to play in Game 1 of the Blackhawks' first-round Stanley Cup Playoffs series against the Phoenix Coyotes on Thursday (10 p.m. ET, CSN-CH, NBCSN, TSN).

Toews skated in his usual spot at practice, centering the Chicago Blackhawks' top line, with Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa as his wingers. It's the first time he's done that since leaving the lineup and missing the final 22 games of the regular season.

Neither Toews nor Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said Toews would play in Game 1, but both sounded very optimistic.

"I'm very confident," Toews said. "Every time you've asked me about the next game, I always tell you, 'Yeah, I'm going to be right in there,' so it's playoff time now. [The last two regular-season games] we wanted to err on the cautious side by me not playing. I'm feeling more confident that Thursday might be the day, but we'll see when that time comes."

Quenneville said the decision now solely is up to Toews to make.

"Organizationally there's hurdles that are necessary to cross along the way, but he's passed them all and we'll visit with him as we go along the next two days," Quenneville said. "We'll see [if he plays]. We're hopeful that's the case. We put him on the line there today and that's where he'll play."

Last Friday in Detroit, Toews didn't sound nearly as upbeat about his chances of playing early in the postseason as he did Monday. Two days later, he sounded excited to get the playoffs started.

"I'm feeling great on the ice and as good as you can in practice," Toews said. "It was kind of game simulation-type drills that we've been doing that I've got to work on a little bit, 3-on-2s and forechecking and stuff like that. I think it'll take a couple periods to get used to that, [but] it should be all right. I'm looking forward to the challenge, I guess."

On Friday, Toews had told reporters that he still was feeling  symptoms on the ice whenever he got his heart rate up close to the level it would be in a game situation. That seemed like it was the last hurdle left to clear.

On Monday, Toews downplayed what he said in Detroit prior to missing the last game of the regular season Saturday against the Red Wings.

"I mean, I wouldn't call them symptoms anymore," Toews said. "I think I'll just work on conditioning and make sure I'm good to go and that I don't get tired in a game. There's always some feelings there that [the symptoms] are going to come back and it's probably going to be the same thing in a game. Most of all, it's about protecting yourself and making sure you're not putting yourself in a position where you can get hit [and] something like that can happen again. I'm feeling that I'm strong enough to make sure that doesn't happen."

Toews went through all of Monday's practice with no issues and also got some work on the Hawks' top power-play unit. Still, he's cautioning people not to expect him to be in top form whenever he does return to the lineup.

Asked how realistic it was for him to be near the same level of play as when he left the lineup, Toews took very little time to answer.

"Not very realistic," he said. "I mean, I just want to go out there and play well, do the little things well, and I think at this point that's all I need to do. We'll take it one game at a time, whenever that's going to be. I'm not going to go out there and do too much and go out there and score three goals right away. Those sorts of things just happen. [You] just go out there and play hard and let things happen."

If Toews does play, that will affect Kane the most in terms of how the forward lines shake out. Kane has spent very little, if any, time playing at left wing in his NHL career; he played the majority of the games Toews sat out at center.

Hossa is entrenched on the right side and Toews is likewise cemented into that top center role when he's healthy enough to play. The way Chicago's other lines have played down the stretch, Quenneville doesn't want to mix them up just yet -- which leaves left wing on the top line for Kane.

"It's something we haven't tried, but it's something we'll try," Quenneville said. "All the other lines were in order and [did] a nice job down the stretch. We don't want to tinker too much with the lines."

Kane, who stepped outside of his right-wing comfort zone just to play center this season, said he's willing to have an open mind about it. Besides, he knows Hossa wasn't going to offer to move.

"I didn't even talk to him [about it]," Kane said as a joke. "It's not even worth it."

It could be worth a lot to Chicago's playoff chances if Kane can make a successful adjustment to the left side. That would give them three prolific offensive players on the same line, with Toews and Hossa both exceptional two-way forwards and Kane's defense improving after all that time in the middle.

Kane said the biggest challenge in his new spot will be the way he's positioned.

"It is a little bit different," he said. "Usually my body's facing the middle of the ice, whether it's right wing or center, so that's a little bit different case. This time, you're kind of facing your own end a little bit, but it's fine. I'll get used to it sooner or later. It's good we've got a couple practices here to kind of get adjusted."

Toews thinks the line has good potential, especially with Kane getting so many games at center and making that adjustment.

"Experience like that is good," Toews said. "You think the game little more at center and when you have to play there a little bit, you might have a little bit more of a defensive mindset. The three of us being out there together … I think we'll be very responsible defensively and I think our main job is to go out there and score goals. As long as we're smart about that, I'm sure it's going to come."

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