Full disclosure: your trusty correspondent is in a playoff hockey pool and currently sits in first place. Take that, haters. My remaining players are Victor Hedman, Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane for the Chicago Blackhawks. I’m nine points ahead of a guy who has Hedman, Stamkos and Ryan Callahan of the Lightning and Sharp, Kane and Jonathan Toews of the Blackhawks. I’m 10 points ahead of another guy who has Hedman and Stamkos from the Lightning and Toews, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith from the Blackhawks.
So, the way I see it, the only thing standing between me and lining my jean shorts with some bills is Toews having a monster Stanley Cup final and Johnson doing virtually nothing. And let’s face it, if that happens, the chances of the Blackhawks winning their third Stanley Cup in six seasons and becoming a kind of, sort of dynasty will go from very good to a virtual certainty.
Which is why I’m choosing Toews and Johnson as the two players who are most likely to decide the fate of the Stanley Cup final. On the surface, it looks like a mismatch – a 5-foot-9 undrafted guy going against a guy who’s 6-foot-2 and 210, and just happens to be one of the most decorated hockey players on the planet who is on the express lane on his way to the Hall of Fame. But those who have underestimated Johnson this season have done so at their own peril.
Both Johnson and Toews have emerged as the leading candidates for the Conn Smythe Trophy for their respective teams. Johnson goes into the final leading the post-season in both goals and points and is offensively propping up a team that has received remarkably little production from its bottom-six forwards. Toews continues to cement his reputation as one of the greatest money players of his generation by scoring important goals and rising to the occasion like no other player.
This series will likely not be decided by goaltending, unless either Corey Crawford or Ben Bishop plays so badly that he makes it a factor. This series will be decided by skill, plain and simple. The team that displays more of it will be the winner and that’s where Toews and Johnson come in. They may not be the most naturally skilled players on their teams, which speaks more to the players around them than it does about them. They are both plenty skilled and, more importantly, are leading the way for their teams right here, and right now.
In Toews, you have a player who time and again, raises his level to the importance of the game. From the playoffs to the Olympics to the World Junior Championship, Toews has been a player who has constantly taken the pressure off his teammates with his performances when his team has needed him most. That’s because Toews competes harder than anyone else on the ice, on every inch of it. That combination of skill and will is lethal.
And in this series, Toews has the opportunity to forge his legacy before turning 30. A third Cup and a second Conn Smythe would almost certainly cement his place as one of the game’s all-time great players, if it hasn’t already. With both Toews’ and Kane’s cap hits rising by a whopping $4 million each next season, there is some concern that the Blackhawks might never again be able to assemble a Stanley Cup winner under the salary cap. That fear might be a tad overblown, since any team with Kane and Toews will be a contender and since GM Stan Bowman has proved a master at roster manipulation in the cap world.
Johnson, on the other hand, anchors a second line (open to debate) that includes one player who wasn’t drafted (himself), a second-round pick (Nikita Kucherov) and a seventh-rounder (Ondrej Palat), both in the same draft. The time has long passed for all of us to expect these guys to stall. Their success can be no longer considered an aberration. They are for real and Johnson is as real as they come. His skating ability, his strength in thinking the game, his uncanny penchant for finding the open spots and his shot are all at an elite level.
In a perfect world, for a pure hockey fan at least, the skill players on each team would rise to the forefront and trade offensive chances and make the Stanley Cup final into an offensive free-for-all. That would be nice, but it probably won’t happen. Even though both teams have the personnel to play and win in a series like that, it will almost certainly get down and dirty. And that’s where Toews and Johnson will have to find a way to let their skills shine through.
Both of them have the makeup to do it. And whoever does it better, we’re betting, will be hoisting the Stanley Cup on a sweltering night pretty soon.