Toews expects to wear target upon return

April 11, 2012

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- With Jonathan Toews' return from a 22-game absence expected Thursday night, the Chicago Blackhawks captain knows he faces a challenge in shaking off the rust to be effective.

But there's another concern. He expects to be a marked man after the lengthy layoff with a concussion.

"I don't doubt that that's going to put a target on my back," Toews said Wednesday. "Especially with this team, they like to play physical. For any guy that's coming back from any sort of injury, you don't want to let him feel comfortable, so I'm expecting that's going to be even tougher than usual. That's the way it is."

Even without being targeted, Toews could be more at risk from routine physical play, given the research that's shown one concussion makes a person more susceptible to another. This was the second concussion of Toews' five-year career, but he says he doesn't have any extra concern or hesitation about contact.

"If there was any doubt like that, I wouldn't be here," Toews said. "I've been as cautious and as smart as I can about dealing with this injury. I feel good, and I feel the way I should be."

After once again skating in practice with the Blackhawks' first line Wednesday, Toews still wasn't ready to make his return to the ice official, but admitted he would be surprised if he did not return for Thursday's Game 1 after skating symptom-free with Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane at Arena.

"I think I'm right there," Toews said. "It's been another day where I feel like I'm getting better and better and I'm getting back to where I want to be as far as when I'm going to play a game. We'll see how it goes tomorrow."

Added Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville: "We're targeting tomorrow. We're hopeful that he'll be playing. That line looks fine together."

With the question of Toews' return essentially answered, the natural next question is about how effective the 23-year-old center can be after such a long layoff. He hasn't played since Feb. 19, but has participated in full contact practices since being cleared at the beginning of this month.

There's clearly no doubt in teammates minds that getting Toews back would provide a boost, but his absence might have been a blessing in disguise for a team that at one point lost nine straight games and seemed destined to miss the postseason.

"We played well without (Toews)," Kane said. "It's one of those things where I think our team game probably got a little better while he was out, but at the same time getting a player of that caliber back, it's exciting just because you know he can help you out in so many different ways -- penalty kill, faceoffs, his own end, scoring goals obviously."

Toews might also boost an ailing power play that, at 15.2 percent, ranked 26th in the NHL, just a few spots higher than the Coyotes' 13.5, which was tied for worst in the league. And as one of the league's premier players when it comes to handling the faceoff -- his 59.4 win percentage ranked first among players with at least 500 faceoffs -- he should increase the Blackhawks' offensive opportunities.

"The upside is going to be high-end puck possession and a lot of ability there," Quenneville said. "For sure tomorrow, we'll clarify whether he's playing or not. But we're optimistic."

Toews is tempering his expectations a bit, but he's understandably eager to get back in a game.

"I've never gone through anything like this where I've waited so long not knowing when it was going to be," Toews said. "If it's tomorrow, I feel ready to play. Mentally, I know I'm not going to be as good as I was the last game that I did play, but it's all about simplifying things out there and just going out there and playing hard. Things are going to happen one way or the other."