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Jonathan Toews’ playoff struggles doom Chicago Blackhawks

At Game 4 between the Anaheim Ducks and Calgary Flames, a man dressed up as Waldo from “Where’s Waldo?” was found in the stands at the Scotiabank Saddledome.

You could make the case it was Johnathan Toews wearing the Waldo clothes, since he was missing the entire 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs.  But by the time he was found at Bridgestone Arena in Game 4 Thursday night, the Chicago Blackhawks were well on their way to a 4-1 loss and a first round exit at the hands of the Nashville Predators.

It was a quiet conclusion to a historically bad series for the Blackhawks, who entered as the top seed in the Western Conference.  It was the first time they had been swept in a playoff series since 1993, and the first time the 1st seed was swept in the first round in the NHL’s current playoff format.  Perhaps more concerning, it’s the 2nd straight season that Chicago exits in the 1st round.  Expectations are constantly high for the 6-time champion Blackhawks, but after they collected 109 points, their second-highest season total, their elimination was shocking and disappointing.

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So how did this happen?  It was the offense that was stagnant, with Toews at the forefront of the issues.  The Blackhawks didn’t score in the first two games of the series and look listless doing so.  A Predators defense that was physical the entire series pressured Toews any chance he got.  When he touched the puck, he was swarmed multiple times and had to make a quick decision on what to do with it.  Even more concerning was his inability to put shots on net.  Ten shots on net in four games is unspectacular for a player who’s scored 20 goals in each of his nine seasons in the league.  Granted, Pekka Rinne was stellar the entire series, but Toews and the rest of the offense couldn’t get much going against Nashville’s blue line anyway.

Just how concerning was it that Toews and Patrick Kane struggled this series?  I think Blackhawks fans have to tip their cap to Rinne and the Preds, who fell to Chicago in the 1st round two years ago and lost four of five in the regular season series.  They had scoring from multiple lines and were relentless in front of the net.  However, the scoring variety that Nashville had was nonexistent with Chicago.  Toews, Kane, and Dennis Rasmussen were the only goal scorers in the series.  Artemi Panarin, the young winger coming off a 74-point campaign, was -4 on the ice.  When the leading producers on offense can’t get going, then the entire unit looks disjointed, as it did in the first two games.  When they built a 2-goal in Game 3, it was the defense and exhaustion that ultimately doomed then.  However, this Blackhawks team built its small dynasty on high-production from Kane and Toews.  They haven’t gotten it in the playoffs the last two years, and it’s hurt them as a result.

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Now that the Chicago offseason arrives early for the second straight season, questions about whether the Blackhawks can reach those glory days again dominate the headlines.  It starts with Toews, who is owed $10.5 million every year until 2023.  While he is still a solid scorer, he is coming off a career-low 21 goals.  And for someone who’s only scored one postseason goal the past two years, it’s a lot of money for someone who is fading in crunch time.  Kane has the same contract as Toews, and Panarin is improving to the point where he may demand a big payday soon.  That doesn’t even factor in the salary they need to address issues on defense.  The Blackhawks currently have less than $3 million in cap space for next season.  This means the players making the big bucks need to produce when it matters the most.

The thing about Waldo is you always managed to find him at the end of the book.  Jonathan Toews is much easier to find on the ice than Waldo is at a crowded amusement park.  But if Toews wants to keep the Blackhawks in the upper echelon of hockey, he can’t disappear in the playoffs while wearing the red and white.

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