How does the leader of the best team in hockey explain the Blackhawks being shut out for the first time in 57 games and a once-magical season suddenly coming within 60 minutes of disappearing?
Toews had as many answers as goals this series: zero. I have seen deer look more comfortable in headlights than Toews did describing the Hawks' third straight loss, a 2-0 crusher to the Red Wings.
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"We played our tails off and did a lot of good things,'' Toews said. "We just couldn't find the back of the net. We're not making any excuses. We just need to find a way to score.''
Nobody can say coach Joel Quenneville didn't try.
Before Game 5 of the 2010 Stanley Cup Final, Quenneville famously sat next to adviser Scotty Bowman on the team flight back from Philadelphia and discussed juggling lines. Anybody know whose seat was next to Quenneville's on the plane that brought the Hawks here for Game 4? Good luck finding that person to fess up.
Nothing worked as the new combinations resulted in an outcome getting old in Chicago. One goal has become a literal objective for a Blackhawks team that has scored twice in its last three losses.
The way Quenneville mixed and matched line combinations illustrated he realized this was the biggest playoff game since the Hawks won the Cup three years ago. If you would have followed Quenneville out of a downtown restaurant after lunch, you might have found several napkins with scribbles on the back of them.
It seemed like typical Quenneville tinkering when Michal Handzus replaced Toews between Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa. Toews started on the second line between Patrick Kane and Bryan Bickell. The third and fourth lines also included combinations together for the first time.
The power-play units reflected even deeper desperation. The first group concocted by Quenneville consisted of Duncan Keith, Brandon Saad, Sharp, Bickell and Hossa. The so-called second unit included Kane and Toews. Both fizzled, failing to generate a goal or momentum. The word discombobulated comes to mind.
"We're comfortable playing wherever Joel puts us,'' Sharp said.
Seldom has it been harder to tell.
In contrast, the Red Wings used their power play to win the game. With one second left on the Hawks' penalty kill at the 10:03 mark of the second period, Jakub Kindl fired a laser from the faceoff circle past Corey Crawford. It marked the first time the Hawks had failed to kill a penalty since April 22, back when they were feared and full of confidence.
You knew how out of sync the Hawks were in the second period when their man advantage produced a bigger threat for the Red Wings to score. Nothing summed up the futility better than the last power play with 4:45 left, when the Hawks failed to test goalie Jimmy Howard. The Wings' penalty-killing unit simply outworked the Hawks, who have gone 11 straight power plays without a goal.
"The one at the end wasn't very good,'' Quenneville acknowledged.
The sequence underscored how effective Howard, the Wings' best penalty killer, has been throughout a series he has dominated. The Hawks hit the post twice, chances teams can't squander against a hot goalie. Sure, the Hawks have been unlucky, but Howard simply has been too good.
"We pay him to do that,'' coach Mike Babcock said.
Howard's $2.25 million salary looks like a bargain. Outside of Kane, no Hawk has scored since the final minute of Game 1. Playoff hockey calls for the Hawks needing to create more traffic because Howard's view was as good as the season ticket holder's behind the glass.
Howard set the tone in the first period, denying Toews on a 2-on-1. Midway through the third, when Bolland had an open chance to tie, Howard came through again. The Hawks had chances. Either Howard or the defense in front of him denied all 28 shots.
"JIM-MY! JIM-MY!'' the crowd at The Joe chanted.
The better Howard got, the more the Hawks' frustration grew.
Nobody expressed it like Toews. It isn't so much the Wings are in Toews' face constantly as in his head, thanks mostly to Henrik Zetterberg. Toews went to the penalty box three times in a 5:34 span of the second period. Captain Serious seldom has looked less stable on the ice.
He came close to changing the subject — and the game — in the third period until Valtteri Filppula made a nice play to poke the puck away after Toews had broken free.
It was that kind of night. It has been that kind of series.