November 3, 2006 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Paradise Lost?

by Dane DeKrey/CHN Correspondent

Is there too much of a good thing on one line for the Fighting Sioux?

T.J. Oshie and Jonathan Toews are college hockey's version of Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. And here's the kicker: Unlike Ovechkin and Crosby, who don't play on the same team, Oshie and Toews are not only teammates, but linemates at North Dakota.

But for how long, time will only tell.

In what has become a soap-opera-like roller coaster for arguably college's hockey most exciting line, it looks like the Oshie-Toews Express may be pulling into station.

"Quite frankly, if Jonathan plays this weekend, they aren't going to play together," said UND assistant coach Cary Eades of the pair's apparent separation for the club's home series against Saint Cloud State. "The question we need to answer as a team is, 'Are we stronger with them or apart?' Together, they are a pretty dynamic group, but sometimes having a good one-two punch down the middle is just as good."

Must this be? Must all good things come to an end?

A trip down statistics lane makes some sense out of what may seem like a bonehead decision by the UND coaching staff. While the 'did-he-just-do-that?' showstoppers are aplenty when Oshie and Toews are on the ice, a more important factor is lacking so far from the two this season — steady production.

Goals seem to be coming in bunches, or not at all.

Last year, the two made a name for themselves, first as dominant players in the World Junior tournament — Oshie for Team USA and Toews as a rare U.S. college player on Team Canada. They continued to impress in separate ways as the season went on, with Oshie having already been selected in the NHL's First Round, and Toews projected to be a high first rounder in 2006. The Sioux made the Frozen Four, Oshie was lauded, and Toews indeed got his rewards at the draft.

But this season, Toews has been out of the lineup, and Oshie has just one goal in eight games.

Perhaps it's because of the added attention the two have received, most of which comes from opposing defenders trying to play spoiler on the sophomores' potential Hobey Baker seasons.

"Right now, there are two bulls-eyes squarely on No. 7 and 9's back," Eades said. "They're going to have to deal with that attention and that close checking, and we're going to have to develop people in or around them, depending on what's going to be the best for the team."

Toews, who was out last weekend against Mankato with an upper body injury, also noticed the influx in interest received by his pairing with Oshie.

"I think when T.J. and I were together, the other team would key on us quite a bit," he said. "Because of this, when we had trouble scoring, the rest of the team seemed to be having the same trouble."

Or can the lackluster performance so far be simply attributed to differences in their styles of play? Toews' silky smooth play is sometimes outshined by Oshie's bull-in-a-china-shop mentality, and vice versa. The question must be asked — is there just not enough ice for the two to them?

"It's great playing with Johnny," said Oshie, a Warroad, Minn., native. "The kid's really just a great hockey player and a great teammate as well. It's great being on his line, because the skill and hockey sense he has makes everyone around him a lot better."

A third explanation for the separation could be the one-dimensionality that the Oshie-Toews tandem is quasi-creating for the Fighting Sioux, who, until last weekend's lamp-lighting party in Mankato, were scoring at dismal levels. Do the benefits of putting the two first-rounders together outweigh the potential costs of losing some depth in the lower parts of the team's lineup?

What is better for UND, giving each leader his own respective crew to command, or forcing one of the two born centers to play second fiddle from the wing?

Not even Eades can answer that.

"These first three months, we are going to try the two in various ways in the lineup," he said. "Either together or separated — and we plan on experimenting with both choices. They are an exciting duo to watch, that's for sure."

For Oshie, it seems with or without Toews alongside, he plans to continue to do what he knows best — play his brand of in your face, fan-friendly hockey.

"I just want to be an exciting player, one who woos the crowd," said Oshie. "I like to have fun and that's the only way I know how to play."

And for Toews, the breakup doesn't seem like something he is going to lose sleep over.

"I think it's all for the best," he said. "Obviously we are versatile players with the ability to create chances and score goals on our own; it will be fun to see how it goes and see how we work apart."

So, who knows, maybe fantasies are better kept just as they are — fantasies. And while bloggers the world over — who as I write are frantically trying to name the now former Oshie-Toews line — are most likely going to lose some sleep, it may be time for UND to swallow awkwardly, and flush the dreams of fusing Toews' beauty and Oshie's beast down the toilet.

Oshie will keep on being Oshie, and mirroring the play of another player donning an 'O' last name, and Toews will be Toews — The Next, Next One. And time will only tell why the possibility of Oshie-Toews dominance just isn't in the cards.

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