Blackhawks fans watched Brooks Orpik steamroll their captain on Sunday night, likely the hardest hit he’s taken in his NHL career save for the Willie Mitchell massacre, and come up wounded. They had to have panicked with playoffs on the horizon. I know I immediately tweeted something to the affect of “Welp, bet losing Toews throws a wrench into the Blackhawks playoff hopes” (or something with a similar message). It didn’t look promising.
Well, the good news is Orpik apparently didn’t turn Toews’ shoulder into ground chuck, and he’s going to be back for playoffs “at 100%.”
What that confident statement from coach Joel Quenneville says to me is that the Blackhawks are in a unique situation for a hockey team: they know exactly who they’re going to play in the first round despite there still being a half-dozen games and two weeks to go in their season, so there’s no need to rush anyone back. I’m willing to bet they aren’t that passionate about beating themselves up down the stretch to earn home ice. A healthy team on the road is better than a damaged one at home.
So the Hawks wisely want to maximize his rest time before heading into the same field of battle they’ve conquered twice in the last four years, and rightfully so. They know the physical sacrifice it takes. But for Toews, and quite possibly his also-wounded partner-in-crime Patrick Kane, that first game might not be easy, especially since they’ll likely be opening up in a fired-up building in Denver, Colorado. Those fans haven’t seen a playoff game since 2009-10, and that young Avs team is going to come out like gangbusters.
A funny thing with coming back from injury though: it’s hard be focused on the game, the puck or positional play right out of the gate, as much as you want to be. It’s too easy to be distracted by your own internal focus, as you judge yourself with every stride. You’re judging how far along your injury is (okay, how much does *this* move hurt), how much you can use it (can I take hits?), and trying to figure out if you’re pushing it too soon. You can tell someone not to worry about their injury, but if I ask you to shoot a basketball a couple weeks after breaking your finger, I doubt I could talk you into making the rim and net the first thing on your mind.
The thing with trying to figure out if it’s too soon to return is that in the eyes of your teammates, the coaches, and the medical staff, once you’re playing, you’re playing. Once you’ve played in an actual game, and you get out of it with nothing happening…why can’t you play in the game two days from now, sorry? And so, you convince yourself – in another two days it will feel even better, and you’ll be able to do more. But if you don’t let something heal you’ve given birth to a nagging injury, and people start asking “What’s wrong with Player X? He hasn’t done s**t” because you’re hesitant to take risks and play hard for fear of the major setback.
So if you’re Toews (or Kane), you’d really, really like to get in a game before playoffs so you can conduct the self-exam. You can skate all you like in practice, but nothing will make you cut as hard as you can like a game does, because why push it? When people talk about “game shape” and “game speed,” think of the amount of effort it takes to keep the puck away from a defender in the corner, or stay with a shifty attacker – it’s those little, tiring reactionary movements that require your stabilizing muscles so much strain that wear you down. Practice, as much as you can do stops, starts and sprints can’t come close to pushing you like a game. Let alone a playoff game against a young, hungry team.
The good news for the Blackhawks is that they’re offensively stacked, and have this luxury. They’re likely going to finish the year with six 20-plus goal scorers (Kane, Toews, Sharp, Hossa, Saad, Shaw), and have another three forwards in the low double digits. They can produce enough with our without Toews down the stretch to finish in a comfortable spot in their division, so yes, they can rest him. And if he does come back fully healthy and they escape game one, they might be better off in the long run having him sit out the last couple weeks of the regular season. Let all those little aches and pains get right, y’know?
Jonathan Toews is a pro and likely far better than someone like myself at being able to compartmentalize, tuck the pain away, and focus on hockey. But while the Blackhawks were smart to give him the most time possible to let his injury heal, it’ll put him in a tough spot in the early, crucial games. You just hope for his sake he gets out there in the first period, it feels like a million bucks, and he’s right back to normal. If it bothers him early, the battle with internal focus will last a lot longer.