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Jonathan Toews’ sweet spot even sweeter

New York Islanders v Chicago Blackhawks

New York Islanders v Chicago Blackhawks

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Updated: December 13, 2013 6:24AM



Jonathan Toews hadn’t even officially won the faceoff yet, but the instant he saw Patrick Sharp closing on the loose puck along the boards, the Blackhawks center immediately headed for his usual spot behind the net.

Sharp quickly backhanded a pass along the boards to Toews, who barely flinched as he absorbed two shoves from Dallas defenseman Brenden Dillon — it would pretty much take the Jaws of Life to extract the puck from Toews’ stick at this point. Toews then wheeled around the far post and fired a perfect pass to a hard-charging Marian Hossa through maybe six inches of crease space between goalie Kari Lehtonen and Dallas forward Cody Eakin’s stick.

Bang-bang. Goal. Just like that.

The area behind the net long has been known as Wayne Gretzky’s “office.” But Toews has been working there nearly his whole life.

“He’s one of the best,” Hossa said. “As soon as he got in position, I tried to find an open space for putting the puck in the net, and he found me beautifully.”

It was nothing new. Toews said he has been setting up shop behind the opponent’s net since he was a kid, as he started getting better and better at protecting the puck — and taking the puck — in a confined space. And now that he’s got four more inches of room to play with back there with this season’s shallower, narrower nets, he’s more dangerous than ever.

“Four inches isn’t much on an entire hockey rink, but once you do get around there, there are some passes and some angles that maybe you didn’t quite have before,” Toews said. “So it’s a little bit tougher to defend against, and there are some very rare moments where it might work to your advantage.”

Such plays used to be commonplace. Gretzky, who had more assists in his career than anyone else had points, was the best ever back there. But he also played in a different era, when defenses were looser and more spread out. These days, the focus is on taking away the slot, so defensemen camp out in front of the net and forwards collapse in the middle, taking away most of the passing lanes Gretzky used to utilize.

When Toews is behind the net, he’s usually got at least one opponent draped all over him, trying to steal the puck, and another one or two clogging the goalmouth. So in order to make plays down low, you have to be incredibly strong on the puck, and the passes — like the one Toews made on Bryan Bickell’s game-tying goal in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final through Zdeno Chara’s legs from behind and to the side of the net — have to be quick, sharp and perfectly timed.

And perhaps nobody in the league does it better.

“It just comes with practice and focus on making plays and working in traffic,” Toews said. “When guys are checking you and they’re on your back, to protect the puck and still be aware of where guys are around you, that’s kind of one of those skills you have to have at this level if you want to score and you want to make offensive plays. So it’s one of those things that I just keep trying to work on and get better and better at.”

Toews mentioned Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk as one of the players he emulates behind the net — guys who are quick with their sticks defensively and strong on the puck offensively. Some of the bang-bang plays such players produce come when takeaways from behind the net suddenly end up as goals in the back of the net.

“Sometimes when guys least expect it, you can try to steal the puck off the stick, because they’re not in a defensive possession if they think they have full possession of the puck, and that’s when they’re most vulnerable,” Toews said.

Of course, it takes more than Toews winning puck battles and seeing plays from behind the net. He needs teammates to read the situation as quickly as he does, and to give him a net-crashing target. Few do that better than Hossa, who’s every bit as strong in traffic and who has been playing with Toews long enough now to know where to be, and when to be there.

“He’s a tough body to move around,” Hossa said. “As soon as he gets position … your job is to just find the empty space.”

Find it, and chances are, Toews will find you. Bang-bang.

There are dozens of elite goal-scorers in this league, the kind that no goalie wants to see streaking down the slot. But the scariest sight of all might be the one the goalie can’t see — Toews, with the puck, directly behind him, waiting, waiting, waiting…

“Jonny is a horse of a player,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “He’s special in that area.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus



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