The Chicago Blackhawks are in the midst of a memorable season that began with a 24-game unbeaten streak and could end with… well, the possibilities abound. There’s been a lot of success, and with that a lot of credit given to Patrick Kane’s hot start and the special teams’ and goaltending improvement.
Save a little of that credit for the head coach, too.
Chicago is the team the rest of the Western Conference is aiming for, and coach Joel Quenneville deserves credit for putting the right pieces in the right places this season. There have been a few shrewd Q moves that have led to this. Here’s a quick synopsis:
FRONT AND CENTER(S)
Andrew Shaw at third-line center? Dave Bolland at second-line center? It looked interesting when Quenneville decided on that in January. Shaw had played center in Rockford during the lockout, but it wasn’t at the NHL level. Bolland had had quick stints at No. 2 center before, but was so dependable on the third line that he was usually back there quickly.
But the two moves have worked. Shaw has become part of a great third line with Bryan Bickell and Viktor Stalberg -- Shaw has also done well in another new role: power-play net pest. Shaw’s appreciative of the chance.
“It shows he has confidence in all of his players,” he said.
Bolland, who now has more than 20 games this season at second-line center, is feeling more comfortable.
“It’s a different role for me,” he said. “I was going against top lines and being sure of it. I knew what my job was. It’s different now, I’m going more into the offensive zone but I don’t want to lose (focus) on the defensive zone.”
BELIEF IN EVERYONE
Twenty-year-old Brandon Saad plays on special teams and the top line. Role players take the ice late in a critical situation. Quenneville has put a lot of different players in a lot of different circumstances this season, and it’s bred a trust that’s gone through the lineup.
“For the most part, they’re trying to give everyone a chance,” said Jonathan Toews, who added Quenneville. “We’re not slimming down the lineup to two or three lines. There are always four lines rolling. We’re relying on everybody, empowering everybody. That comes from the coaching staff. And everyone feels really involved.”
Shaw, who is taking on the aforementioned roles, agreed.
“He’s played me a lot of minutes out there in key moments and late in the periods,” Shaw said. “We (third liners) have a lot of offensive chances created just with our cycle game, and he keeps letting us know that.”
NO CHANGE IS GOOD
When things went wrong last season, Quenneville didn’t hesitate to start switching line combinations. This year, players aren’t switched off lines unless absolutely necessary. Yes, when you go 24 consecutive games without a regulation loss there’s no reason to change things. But even if there’s been a lousy period or two, everything has remained the same.
The benefits are evident: the Blackhawks’ lines have had time to build chemistry, figure each other out and know where each other will be.
“It’s a little different from yelling out who’s going next and who’s not sure who’s going next. It’s a change from last year and previous years,” Bolland said of few line changes. “It’s been good. There are some nights when a line isn’t going but for most of the year, they’ve been doing their jobs.”
The Blackhawks’ third line, one of the most consistent this season, was altered when Patrick Sharp went out with a shoulder injury. After two losses, in which Bickell and Stalberg both had second-line turns, it was quickly reassembled.
“There’s been a little different mentality out there,” Stalberg said. “We really have four lines rolling for us and that’ll be huge for us when the playoffs come around. You get familiarity with the guys you play with, you know their tendencies and where you want to be on the ice. Obviously it’s going to change at some point; if you get in a funk, you have to change things up. But it’s been better this year when things have remained the same.”
The Blackhawks could have gotten overinflated egos during that 24-game winning streak. They were sitting in the NHL spotlight for a month and a half. Media coverage grew daily. But the Blackhawks stayed stoic and focused on a per-game basis. General manager Stan Bowman said Quenneville deserves a lot of credit for that.
“He's done a great job, especially keeping things even keeled when we were going through the long streak,” Bowman said. “It's a challenge when you're getting questioned every day and to be able to keep the guys focused on the next game.”
Quenneville has put the right combinations together this season. He’s given much responsibility to players who didn’t have it in the past. It’s all worked. And if he was blamed for team troubles in the past, he deserves credit for their surge now.
“We're in a lot of close games and overtime games and he has that touch for being able to know what guys to utilize and when to give days off. All of those little things really matter,” Bowman said. “His leadership throughout this shortened season has been crucial to the success of the group.”