The relatively slow start to the season for Jonathan Toews has been buried by his recent surge.
The captain is in prime form at the right time for the Blackhawks, reminding the Minnesota Wild that their postseason path will likely lead to Chicago.
Toews had three goals and two assists, and the Blackhawks beat the rival Wild 5-3 on Tuesday night for their second win over the Western Conference leaders in less than two weeks.
"Johnny's done so many things for us," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "He's an amazing player with competitiveness you're never going to find. What a great leader and a great captain."
Toews notched his fourth career hat trick on an empty-netter with 1:02 left to stave off a spirited rally by the Wild, who began a franchise-record eight-game homestand on Feb. 8 with a 4-3 overtime loss to the Blackhawks. Toews had a goal and two assists in that one and has 37 points in 35 career games against Minnesota.
"We always look at that team, especially with the way they're playing, as a measuring stick right now," said Toews, who has 20 points in his last 12 games. "Our respect level for what they can do is at an all-time high, and we know it's going to take a heck of an effort to beat them."
Toews' wing men Nick Schmaltz and Richard Panik had the other goals, giving the Blackhawks 34 goals in their last eight games and four five-goal outputs in their last five games. The first line totaled nine points, which rendered the shutdown of Patrick Kane and his line moot.
"It makes it tough. That's why they've won the Cup three times. It feels like when one's not going, the other is going," said Zach Parise, whose blind redirect of a shot by Marco Scandella brought the Wild within 3-2 after Toews beat Mikko Koivu on a faceoff to set up Schmaltz for a wrist shot that Devan Dubnyk never saw just 33 seconds into the third period.
Mikael Granlund had two power-play goals, the second of which brought the Wild within 4-3 before Ryan Suter just missed the tying goal with an attempt that hit the crossbar. Between the goals by Parise and Granlund, though, was the tap in by Toews made possible by a slick behind-the-net spin by Schmaltz that produced a perfect pass to the edge of the crease.
"He just wasn't getting the bounces there at the start of the year. He's always worked so hard, so you knew at some point the tides were going to change for him," Schmaltz said.
The game was played in front of the largest crowd of the season in Minnesota, an overflow paid attendance of 19,333 filled out with the usual smattering of boisterous Blackhawks fans. They got the first chance to fully cheer when Toews knocked in the rebound of Brian Campbell's slap shot that Dubnyk wasn't able to glove in the first minute of the second period.
Wild defenseman Matt Dumba, back from a four-game absence because of a lower-body injury, was in Dubnyk's way as the All-Star goalie tried to freeze the puck. The night didn't improve for Dumba, whose turnover behind the goal line less than five minutes later gave Toews possession for a setup for Panik and a 2-1 lead.
Dubnyk, who stopped 34 shots, was awfully busy in that middle frame, making a diving save to deny Kane's chip from the edge of the crease a little later and then letting Brent Seabrook's shot ping off the post. The Blackhawks outshot the Wild 13-5 in the second period.
The Wild took a five-point lead over the Blackhawks, with one game in hand, into their five-day bye.
"They outplayed us today, but what wouldn't make me think that we couldn't play with them?" Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said. "They're a great team. But we're right there."
NOTES: The Blackhawks are 20-5-1 when Toews gets at least one point. ... Corey Crawford had 29 saves for Chicago. ... Parise had a third-period goal waved off for a high stick. ... The Wild lost by more than one goal for only the fifth time this season. ... Exactly one year ago, the Wild beat the Blackhawks 6-1 in an outdoor game at the University of Minnesota's football stadium.
Chicago: The Blackhawks return home to start a four-game homestand, beginning with Arizona on Thursday.
Minnesota: The Wild come back from their bye to host Los Angeles on Monday and start the final stretch of 23 games in 41 days.