The finish line of a long and convoluted NHL season is in sight, a maximum of six days away, and the Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Bruins are no different than anyone else who can see a break coming.
If it's Monday and summer vacation begins on Friday, it's easier to embrace the last few days of the work year with energy and enthusiasm, a development evident in the performance of Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews Wednesday night. Toews was a formidable force in an interesting game, the 6-5 victory over the Bruins that squared the best-of-seven series at two games apiece and restored home-ice advantage to the Presidents' Trophy winners.
Toews made an unusual admission after the game, revealing that the Blackhawks' overtime scoring hero, defenceman Brent Seabrook, had been gently prodding him to regain the goal-scoring touch that he'd had in the regular season and lost in the playoffs.
Just about everyone else was willing to let Toews off the hook because of all the other qualities he brought to the team equation. But on Thursday, Seabrook said he thought Toews needed a pep talk because:
"To be completely honest, I was sick and tired of hearing everybody talk about everything that Johnny is doing right. I mean, he's got to score goals for us. … It wasn't about the little things that he does. It wasn't about his leadership that he brings. I just thought that maybe he needed to start thinking about scoring goals."
It was a candid, fascinating admission and perked up Thursday's between-games press gathering.
Seabrook had a similar steadying influence on Toews two rounds ago, when Toews was being frustrated by Henrik Zetterberg's persistent checking in the series against the Detroit Red Wings and took too many retaliatory penalties as a result. In one memorable scene, captured by the television cameras, Seabrook went to the penalty box, put his arm around Toews and calmed him down.
To get this much truth-telling says a lot about the relationship the Blackhawks' veterans have with one another – knowing they can challenge each other to be better, but secure in the knowledge it will be taken the right way. Some teams just feel the need to heap false praise upon one another.
"He wasn't trying to get on me, I don't think," Toews said. "He was definitely just trying to spark me a little bit. I don't know if it's something that goes with the relationship and the friendship we've had over the years, rooming with him my rookie year here in Chicago. It goes a ways back already. But he's always looked after me that way.
"It's good. He cares about his teammates and he wants guys to have success, and just as much or more than anybody, he wants to win this thing."
Toews also won a few extra rounds of the battle with the Bruins' Zdeno Chara, who has become this menacing force, different even from the player who won the Norris Trophy a few years back, edgier, with a mean streak bubbling to the surface more frequently. It is as if, the older Chara gets, the more willing he is to push the boundaries of what he can get away with, and in these playoffs, he's getting away with transgressions that would have seen him in the penalty box, prelockout.
But on Wednesday, the Blackhawks made Chara work harder than he's had to previously, dumping pucks into his corner, making him turn, getting in on the fore-check, trying to fatigue him and coax him into turnovers. It was Chara's least efficient game of the Stanley Cup final and proved that he is not the invincible, impenetrable force that he appeared to be earlier in the series.
Toews calculates Chara's "number one advantage" as his "size, reach and strength," but added: "There are certain ways you can expose him. … We made sure we were outnumbering him everywhere we went.
"We just try not to be intimidated by his size. You have to get to the net, find a way inside, and not be intimidated by that. We can outwork him, and we did that, and we want to continue that."
That was another candid assessment, one sure to catch Chara's eyes. But Toews was talking in the immediate aftermath of a game in which he'd snapped a 10-game goalless drought and was in high spirits.
"I just wanted a lucky one," Toews said. "It doesn't make much sense when you say that – a puck going off your stick from the point can liberate you as a player and help you play the rest of the game with less pressure and just go out there and make plays and let things happen, instead of trying to force every single little thing – but it does.
"That's the difference it makes for you, and I think anyone will tell you the same thing."
So the series is on even terms, the home-ice advantage restored to Chicago, and by the time they start the next game, it will officially be summer. If the series goes the limit, it would mean the last day of work for both teams will be next Wednesday, June 26, making it the longest season in NHL history.