<
>

Jonathan Toews has Hawks back in hunt

Turns out the heart of a champion still very much beats in Chicago.

Written off by some at times this season, the Blackhawks have finally arrived in the 2010-11 season, a 7-1-2 stretch in their last 10 games signaling the Stanley Cup holders are not ready to roll over.

"I always believed all year that we had a good team and a team that could win," captain Jonathan Toews told ESPN.com Thursday night. "Now everyone on the team understands what we have to do. They wanted it a bit more, and it's fun to see."

Yes, folks, the United Center is rocking again, and the Hawks are riding a six-game win streak entering a Friday night home game with Carolina and a big "Hockey Night In Canada" tilt at Toronto on Saturday night. The club sits fourth in the West, although only two points out of ninth. It'll be a mad scramble to the end, but the Hawks are feeling it.

"We've been though a lot, we see the light at the end of the tunnel. It's all right there in front of us, and we just have to go get it," said Toews, who has 11 points (6-5) during the six-game win streak. "You're starting to see how good a team we can be."

It sure took a while. The famous Cup hangover was hard to shake.

"Teams are going to get up to play you and the motivation is right there for them," said Toews. "It is tough to come back and find your game that early in the season."

There were good stretches, quickly followed by bad ones. Up and down, up and down ... a real roller coaster.

"It just felt like no matter what we did, the same problems just kept coming up," Toews said. "Some games it seemed like a bit of carelessness."

Half the team was jettisoned last summer to accommodate a salary cap crunch, and despite the best intentions team chemistry can't be forced. It has to come naturally. It's finally here.

"I think everyone feels comfortable with each other," Toews said. "We've all bonded and formed those relationships with each other off the ice. And on the ice, I think everyone knows their place now."

Led by an MVP-like performance by Toews, the Hawks have roared back up the Western standings with an 8-3-2 month in February. Last spring's Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP, Toews has willed his team into contention, putting up 27 points (9-18) in his last 18 games, and overall his 63 points (25-38) in 62 games are on pace to eclipse his career-high of 69 points set two years ago.

Sidney Crosby's unfortunate concussion has left the Hart Trophy race wide open, and if Toews carries on with his current play through the final five weeks of the regular season, he deserves consideration.

Chants of "M-V-P" roared from the United Center crowd following a postgame, ice-level interview Wednesday night.

"Yeah I heard that, I heard that," said a humble Toews, no doubt his cheeks reddening across the phone line. "It's pretty cool. The fans get going and they're pretty loud. They're excited right now. They're starting to see the same thing we do. They're seeing the potential on our team."

They're starting to see that a Cup repeat isn't that crazy a notion after all, despite the maddening opening four months.

"I always thought it was possible," Toews said. "It was tough to see so many teammates leave our team last summer. But I thought coming back that we'd be there at the end. It's a long season. And we're in a great position right now. We're not getting ahead of ourselves. If we keep playing this way, we're confident we can get a playoff spot. And once you get there -- you saw that [No. 7 seed] Philadelphia did last year -- anything can happen.

"It's just about us believing that we've got that type of team."