Ben Smith couldn’t find the back of the net.
The Chicago Blackhawks’ fourth-line winger whacked away at the puck in Tuesday night’s 5-3 win against the Minnesota Wild, once, twice, a third time. Each time he was stuffed by Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom.
Jonathan Toews had seen enough.
The Blackhawks captain–who had started the scoring chance by stealing a puck and feeding Smith for the first opportunity–cashed in on the third rebound to put Chicago up 3-1 in a dominant second period after the Hawks labored through the first.
The goal was part of a big night for Toews, who finished with one goal and two assists.
Toews has been a big reason why Chicago, winners of 10 of its last 11, is on such a roll lately.
But the Blackhawks had quite a scare one week ago in Boston, when Bruins defenseman Dennis Seidenberg stapled Toews from behind into the boards in the second period, with the Blackhawks already leading 2-0 and on the power play at the time of the hit.
The immediate response was odd, in the sense that there really wasn’t one. The Blackhawks, arguably the best skating team in the NHL, are at the opposite end in the toughness category, and with the team on the power play already and heading to a 5-on-3 advantage as a result of the hit, no one made an attempt to go after Seidenberg.
Toews, who had gone face-first into the boards, got up slowly and looked groggy. Blackhawks trainer Mike Gapski ran out to the ice to check on Toews, who was allowed to skate out the next shift with the Blackhawks trying to score a crucial third goal on the two-man advantage.
Chicago won the game 3-2 but Toews did not play the third period after being taken off the ice for further concussion testing. Afterwards, Joel Quenneville remarked that Toews’ competitive nature kept him on the ice in the first place, despite the apparent danger.
With the seriousness of the injury uncertain, the Chicago media lambasted the Hawks for their lack of response, in the physical sense, to the hit. Andrew Shaw was involved in a fight in the third period, but it wasn’t with Seidenberg, who looked remorseful immediately after the play on Toews and was not given supplemental discipline by the league in the aftermath.
Told that Dennis Seidenberg will NOT have a hearing for his hit on Jonathan Toews
— Pierre LeBrun (@Real_ESPNLeBrun) December 12, 2014
The lack of a physical response drew the ire of former Blackhawk Jamal Mayers, a member of the 2013 Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks team and current analyst for Comcast Sportsnet Chicago. The discussion was a familiar one, after Toews was injured last season in a 4-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins and missed time as a result.
The Blackhawks are not a very physical team, and Quenneville made the argument, in both cases, that the team was trying to win the game, rather than seek physical retribution. That type of thinking–head trumping heart–is rare in the NHL, but it’s part of the growing and shifting nature of some of the league’s best teams.
Part of Chicago’s “problem” with toughness is the success of Ben Smith and the prominence of the team’s fourth line. Whereas the league used to be dominated by checking lines when the 3rd and 4th lines came over the boards, the Blackhawks employ skill players throughout their lineup.
The fourth-line combination of Smith, center Marcus Kruger, and winger Daniel Carcillo were on the ice for two goals in the win over Boston, while the Hawks skated winger Patrick Sharp, recently back from injury, on the team’s third line.
In 2010 and again in 2013, during the Blackhawks runs through the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the presence of a scoring fourth-line gave Chicago an advantage, one that other teams like defending champions Los Angeles were quick to recognize and duplicate. The results speak for themselves.
The ability to skate four scoring lines has changed the way that NHL teams are looking at players. The days of the enforcer are coming to an end, with fights declining across the league. It’s not surprising to see that the Blackhawks have been in scraps just six times this season, the same as Central Division foe Nashville. Or that Eastern Conference contenders Tampa Bay, Toronto and Detroit all have fought eight times or less, with the Red Wings at a league-low three.
Conversely, it is equally unsurprising to find the Buffalo Sabrers and Edmonton Oilers at the top of the list, as frustrations boil over when you’re a last place team year after year.
Toughness in hockey is changing, from a reliance on physical toughness to the solemn credence of mental toughness. Sure, teams ought to stick up for their teammates, and when the Bruins visit the United Center on February 22, 2o15, Seidenberg would do well to keep his head on a swivel. But knowing the situation has taken precedent over the need to automatically follow violence with violence, at least on superior teams like Chicago, a mark of how far the sport has come in just a few years.
The Blackhawks were rewarded for their decision, despite not scoring on the ensuing 5-on-3 power play. Toews, after being cleared to return to the ice the following day, has registered one goal and four assists in the three games since and hasn’t missed a step, or any time.
That’s crucial this time of year for a team that has lost just four games in the past six and a half weeks.
Derek Wolff is a graduate of Grand Valley State University, sportswriter for various publications and baseball coach.