With the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues set to square off in the playoffs for the first time since 2002, Madhouse Enforcer is taking a look at some of the key matchups that will help decide the series between these Central Division rivals.
Today’s matchup is one taking place on the benches, as Joel Quenneville and Ken Hitchcock match wits.
It isn’t often that you get two of the winningest coaches in NHL history to go up against each other in a playoff series, but that’s exactly what’s going to happen this week when the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks tangle in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville, who is currently in third place on the all-time wins list among coaches at 706, will be facing off with Ken Hitchcock, the Blues boss who is currently in a tie for seventh place on the list at 648 victories. Both coaches have won Stanley Cups (Quenneville has two with the Blackhawks in 2010 and 2013, while Hitchcock won with the Dallas Stars in 1999), and both have a very well defined strategic aim to their game plans.
For Quenneville, it’s all about taking advantage of the depth of his team and about encouraging defensive responsibility among his forwards. Guys like Ben Smith and Brandon Saad have been critical in both areas this season, and thanks to Quenneville’s emphasis on aggressive defense and puck possession, the Hawks are always a difficult team to play against.
As for the Blues, they employ more of a physical style of defense over raw speed, but just like the Hawks, they can get the transition game going quickly thanks to their quick-handed blue liners and skilled two-way forwards. Players like David Backes and Alex Pietrangelo are critical to that strategy, and their ability to execute it has helped mold the Blues into a serious Cup contender over the past several seasons.
One of the big knocks on Hitchcock has been his lack of success in the playoffs since back-to-back Cup Final appearances with the Stars. From 2000 on, Hitchcock has coached three different teams, won five playoff series, and been eliminated in the first round three different times including last season. He has also missed the playoffs twice and been fired three times over that span, so his lack of recent success isn’t exactly a check mark in his favor.
In Quenneville’s case, his recent run with the Hawks has been dotted with some disappointments, like the 2011 and 2012 postseasons where the Hawks ended up losing in the first round in consecutive years, but he has at least made the playoffs in six straight years with the team, and done so with an ever-rotating cast of characters thrown together because of salary cap constraints. The two championships have definitely helped his standing as a coach, but the work he has done with constantly changing personnel, and getting them to buy into his system, has been impressive.
All of that being said though, the Blues are clearly a time that buys into Hitchcock’s philosophy, so the notion that there is a wide gulf between the two tacticians is not a valid one. The Blues don’t have the Hawks’ playoff successes in recent years, but they have been a solid team for several seasons now, and they are a team that could very well break out this year as the playoffs begin.
That does remain to be seen, and since it’s irresponsible to evaluate matchups on hypotheticals, we will give the edge to Quenneville, albeit by a smaller margin than some others may.