CHICAGO – Mockery marked the next step in Jonathan Toews’ recovery.
After Toews anchored a top line with teammates Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa during practice Monday, his teammates teed off on the high-paid, high-scoring trio.
“The guys are joking a little bit in the locker room that we’re going to need three pucks on our line,” Toews said with a grin, “because everyone wants to keep the puck.”
In truth, the Blackhawks would love to see their star-studded line thrive.
Although Toews insisted his playing status remained uncertain heading into the Western Conference quarterfinals against the Phoenix Coyotes, an hourlong practice revealed several important clues about his likely return. He practiced entirely with the No. 1 line, which featured Kane on left wing and Hossa on right wing, and he parked in front of the crease with the team’s top power-play unit.
Why would the Hawks bother to shuffle lines unless they expected Toews to play? Toews missed the final 22 games of the regular season because of an upper-body injury that was reported to be a concussion, but he has practiced for more than a week.
When Toews was asked directly whether he was confident in his ability to return for Game 1 on Thursday, he did not hesitate with his response.
“I’m very confident,” Toews said.
That’s great news for Hawks fans, even if nothing is official quite yet.
“We’ve got some days to make sure,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said.
If and when Toews returns, the Hawks could have one of the most potent scoring lines in the playoffs. Toews, Kane and Hossa combined for 200 points in 222 games played during the regular season and could create matchup nightmares for Phoenix.
Even during practice, Toews said, the group’s ability was obvious.
“We have three guys who can go out and make plays,” said Toews, who scored 57 points (29 G, 28 A) in 59 games this season. “Hossa is the big body who protects the puck and keeps plays alive. ‘Kaner’ has been playing well, he's been scoring goals. Those two guys have confidence, and I just want to go out there and kind of be a catalyst.”
The newly formed top line also would allow Quenneville to maintain a surging second line of Marcus Kruger, Patrick Sharp and Viktor Stalberg along with a pesky checking line of Dave Bolland, Bryan Bickell and Andrew Shaw.
During Toews’ absence, Kane moved from right wing to center alongside Hossa and a rotating cast of left wingers. Now, Kane must adjust to playing the left side.
“It’s a little bit different,” Kane said. “Usually, the middle of my body is always facing the middle of the ice, whether it’s right wing or center. That’s a little bit different this time where 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 that we have a couple of practices here to kind of get adjusted.”
As leaders in the locker room and in the scoring column, all three players on the top line realize that they likely will be counted on to contribute immediately.
Hossa led the Hawks with 77 points (29 G, 48 A) in 81 games during the regular season. Kane rebounded from a goal-scoring drought to finish with 66 points (23 G, 43 A) in 82 games, which marked his fifth consecutive season with at least 20 goals.
“We know there’s going to be tons of expectations,” Hossa said. “Hopefully, we can click right away and go from there.”
Yet developing chemistry might require time.
As for how long, Hossa said, it was impossible to know until the series started.
“Well, I remember three years ago, in my first game, we clicked right away,” Hossa said. “But after that, we didn’t play much together. So, it could go right away, or it could take some time."
Kane said he expected his timing with Toews to be a work in progress.
“He’s been out for a little while here, I think a quarter of the season, so it’s not something that’s going to come back just like that,” Kane said. “But we’ve played with each other enough where hopefully it only takes a couple of practices.”
The Hawks have only a couple of practices before they face off against the Coyotes.