CHICAGO — Jonathan Toews and Mike Richards skated on the same line, sported the same jersey and shared a purpose during Canada’s pressure-filled run to a gold medal at the Vancouver Olympics.
Playing in their own country where hockey is king, the expectations immense, made the reward even more gratifying for two young stars.
A few months later, they have a rare chance at a hockey double, a chance to add a Stanley Cup to their gold medal. This time they are on opposite sides, with Toews and the Blackhawks looking to win the franchise’s first championship since 1961 and Richards leading the Flyers back to the finals for the first time in 13 years.
The two young captains — Toews at 22, Richards at 25 — are former first-round draft picks whose teams follow their example and their play.
They are 1-2 in playoff scoring this year.
Toews has put up 26 points with seven goals and 19 assists and has a point in a club-record 13 straight playoff games. Richards has 21 points, six goals and 15 assists.
But what they do for their teams goes well beyond finding the back of the net with the puck.
They can get dirty in the corners or near the crease, check another team’s scoring threat or thread a precise pass to set up a teammate.
“I’d say he’s a little more physical player than I am,” Toews said.
“He likes to go for the big hits. But yeah, he’s a competitive guy, a heart-and-soul guy that doesn’t take the easy way. He works for every bounce he gets and you saw the way he played there in Game 5 the other night . . . He’ll overpower some guys and really kind of catch you by surprise sometime. He’s the type of guy his team will respond to and kind of play well with him.”
In the clincher over Montreal, Richards dived head first and slid perfectly between Montreal goalie Jaroslav Halak and Canadiens defenceman Roman Hamrlik. The puck squirted away as Halak and Hamrlik crashed and Richards got up and tapped it in.
A highlight-film goal — a short-handed one at that — still being talked about days later.
“He plays with an edge. He’s physical. He’s feisty. He’ll drop his gloves. There’s really not a weakness in his game,” said Chicago’s Patrick Sharp, a former Flyer who won a Calder Cup with Richards five years ago.
“That’s why he’s the captain over there,” Sharp said. “That’s why he’s the leader. When I was there, he came in and he was kind of touted as the next future leader after Keith Primeau, and he’s done a heck of a job doing that. He’s a guy we’ve got to key on, for sure.”
Toews and Richards aren’t the only players who could win a gold medal and get to carry around the Stanley Cup this year.
Chicago’s defensive tandem of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook and veteran Flyers defenceman Chris Pronger also helped Canada win the gold.
“It would be special. Ever since the Olympics it’s been go, go, go. No time to think about that,” Richards said.
Asked about Toews, he returned the compliment.
“The thing I know about Toews is how hard he works and how he makes his linemates better,” he said. “Duncan and Seabrook are the same way. They work well together. Those are things you have to be aware of.”
In the teams’ only meeting this season, Pronger scored the game-winner with two seconds left to lift the Flyers to victory, a defeat Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said may have been Chicago’s most frustrating of the season.
Pronger has watched Richards grow into his role this season and been there to support him when needed — on and off the ice.
“It’s not always going to be roses. There’s always going to be tough times, for older captains too,” Pronger said. “As the year went along, he found his niche and how he would lead our team and it’s been very successful for not only him, but our team. Guys have fallen in line.”
How much Toews and Richards go head-to-head will be determined by line matchups when the finals begin Saturday night. Chicago could go at Richards with pesky centre Dave Bolland, who’s had success in bothering top scorers in the post-season.
Toews said he welcomes the challenge of facing Richards.
“I’ll be ready for it. It’s one of those matchups that’s cool. Hopefully we’ll get the best of him,” he said.
“You want to stare down at some of the best players you are playing against, test yourself and your team,” Toews added. “It’s all about finding what you really got inside yourself when you are out there against players like Mike Richards when it really matters.”