Who is Chicago's MVP?
Updated: April 23, 2012 10:52PM
Is there a more valuable MVP in Chicago than Jonathan Toews?
After watching Toews will the Blackhawks to another playoff victory by threading the needle in overtime to beat Phoenix Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith in Game 5 on Saturday night, there isn’t any doubt — at least until Derrick Rose carries the Bulls over the top.
Jay Cutler’s value during the regular season is unquestioned and lamentably quantifiable. But when Cutler was hurt in the playoffs, even Caleb Hanie was an improvement against the Packers in the NFC Championship Game.
Rose is a better argument. Even though the Bulls are 17-9 without Rose this season, Tom Thibodeau is the only guy in Chicago who thinks the Bulls can win the NBA title without him.
Paul Konerko, with a ring to his credit and 13 years as one of the most consistent athletes ever in Chicago, has better credentials than either Cutler or Rose. In the 2005 postseason, the Sox were 10-0 when Konerko hit safely; his two-out Grand Slam in Game 2 of the World Series was the most indelible moment of the Sox’ four-game sweep of the Astros. If there can be a series-changing at-bat in a 4-0 sweep, that was it. But for all he does, Konerko only bats four times a game and doesn’t pitch. He can’t make Adam Dunn better. And he can only close with his bat.
Starlin Castro? The Cubs, sadly, aren’t good enough to qualify for the debate. Their most valuable assets are team president Theo Epstein and hope. Even the Wolves’ Darren Haydar — a former AHL MVP with two Calder Cup trophies to his credit — would be more credible than any Cub player if he can rally his team back into their playoff series with San Antonio Rampage this week.
But more often than not, Toews stands alone, as he did Saturday night by doing what he does best — winning a face-off, being in the right place at the right time and turning into the best sharpshooter in the league when it matters most. There was one spot Toews had to hit to beat Smith in overtime and with the laser focus of a winner, he nailed it.
Not everybody can do that. Patrick Sharp is a great player, but when he had a similar point-blank opportunity earlier in the game, he fired the puck right at Smith. He missed a similar golden opportunity in overtime of Game 7 against the Canucks last year. With about as much room as Toews had against the Coyotes, he took a perfect feed from Toews and fired a shot right at Roberto Luongo’s pads.
That’s not to disparage Sharp — who had just as much right to the Conn Smythe Trophy as Toews did in 2010 — but to illustrate the greatness of Toews. It was Toews’ spectacular short-handed goal against the Canucks late in regulation that sent the game into overtime in the first place. He split two defenders and slipped the puck past a third to set up Marian Hossa. And when Hossa’s shot was stopped, a prone Toews slapped the rebound past Luongo to tie the game.
Just as ‘‘the ball will find the bad fielder’’ in baseball, the puck seems to find Jonathan Toews at the right time. Brent Seabrook had to deftly kick the puck to set himself up for the game-tying goal in the final seconds of Game 1 — a pretty nifty move under the circumstances. Fate seems to do the same thing for Toews. When Duncan Keith blocked a puck with his mouth in the 2010 playoffs, it led to a short-handed goal by the San Jose Sharks. The following game, Toews blocked a puck with his leg, and it caromed right to Dave Bolland for a tie-breaking breakaway goal.
It’s tough to figure out how or why this keeps happening, but it’s not luck. Toews has won too many gold medals and Cups and has been on the ice for too many key goals for it to be anything as random as good fortune. After missing the final 22 games of the regular season with a concussion, Toews scored 4:04 into the first period of Game 1 of the Coyotes series. In a series where literally every goal has counted, Toews a plus-5 — only the Flyers’ Claude Giroux and the Predators’ Francis Bouillon (both plus-6) are better in the playoffs. And Toews is the only player in the top 12 in plus-minus whose team has been outscored (13-12).
Whether or not Toews is the MVP of MVPs in Chicago, he has the most unique defining quality — his innate ability to focus in critical moments is better than anyone in town since Michael Jordan. Brian Urlacher makes an entire defense better. Rose can make a bad team average or an average team good better than anyone. But nobody can put a good team over the top like Toews.
The Blackhawks are in a tough spot without Hossa. They are neither as deep nor as versatile nor as clutch in goal as they were in 2010. But they still have a trump card if they can find a way to use it. Their best hope is to give Jonathan Toews a chance to make the difference.