Wherever Minnesota Wild left wing Zach Parise goes, Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews likely will follow.
Through the first two games of the Western Conference Second Round series between the Wild and Blackhawks, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville deployed Toews' line against Parise's line on most opportunities.
It's why Toews played against Parise for 18:44 of Parise's 30:23 of even-strength ice time in the first two games at United Center, third-most among Chicago forwards, according to datarink.com. The only Chicago forwards who played more frequently against Parise, right wing Marian Hossa and left wing Brandon Saad, are Toews' linemates.
And it's a tactic that doesn't come as a surprise: Toews carries a reputation for being one of the best defensive forwards in the NHL. He plays in a shut-down role against other teams' superstars, is a finalist for the Selke Trophy this season, and won the award in 2013.
What makes Toews so good defensively is a bit difficult to define, but there are a few numbers that support this belief: Toews was on the ice this season for 54 even-strength goals-for and 31 even-strength goals-against, according to War-on-Ice.com. Those 31 goals-against came in a little less than 1,200 minutes of even-strength ice time while drawing assignments against top offensive players like Parise, St. Louis Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko and Dallas Stars forward Tyler Seguin.
It's the way Toews uses his skill set to provide good defensive play that is more difficult to quantify. In Games 1 and 2 against the Wild, what Toes did made Parise's life much tougher.
The tone was set early, when Parise's line took its first shift of the series 33 seconds into Game 1, and Toews' line took its first shift. The resulting play was a turnover forced by Chicago and then a goal scored for the Blackhawks.
Minnesota sends the puck around the boards and gets in on the forecheck. Chicago defenseman Nicklas Hjalmarsson loses possession and Parise takes the loose puck.
Toews is able to close the space between him and Parise, and bends his knees so he can use his lower body as leverage to bump Parise off the puck. He makes this play leading with his stick but not reaching at the puck; Toews goes stick-on-stick so Parise can't swim by him.
Toews lifts Parise's stick and uses his upper body to drive Parise toward the boards. Toews puts himself between Parise and the puck, not allowing Parise to curl back and reverse direction while maintaining possession.
Forward Jason Pominville recovers the puck for Minnesota. Toews gets his stick in the passing lane, funneling the play into traffic while keeping his body between Pominville and Parise, not allowing Pominville to pass the puck down the end boards.
With Toews playing in the middle and Parise on the wing, it's not always a play a center would make defending a winger. But Toews created puck possession when his line was out against Parise's, limiting what Minnesota's top offensive unit can produce.
In Game 2 Toews broke up a play at the Chicago blue line and started to transition the other way.
The Wild dump the puck in and Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford passes it to defenseman Duncan Keith. Keith tries to move the puck to Toews but sends it too high and right into the path of Pominville. Toews gets a piece of the pass, deflecting it toward the blue line.
Pominville corrals the puck and attempts a quick shot. With Toews' closing speed Pominville doesn't have much time to do anything else. After Pominville fans on an initial attempt, Toews gets his left leg in the shooting lane and in a position to redirect the puck out of the zone.
Toews blocks the shot, uses his body to shield Pominville off the puck and makes a pass to Saad that allows Chicago to transition the other way.
In Game 3, with Wild coach Mike Yeo getting last change on home ice, he kept Parise away from Toews at even strength; Parise played 4:47 of his 17:34 of 5-on-5 ice time against Toews, his lowest total of the series.
When Minnesota attempts to stave off elimination in the best-of-7 series in Game 4 on Thursday (9:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports 2), it again will be a chess match between Yeo and Quenneville. In Games 1 and 2 Toews combined to play against Parise for 61.7 percent of his even-strength time on ice; in Game 3 it was 28.5 percent.
When Parise was matched against Toews, Parise's shot-attempts percentage in Games 1 and 2 was 37.8 percent; when he was away from Toews, it was 58.6 percent.
Whether making a 1-on-1 play against Parise or taking a shift against Parise's line, Toews makes plays that limit Minnesota's most dangerous offensive weapon.