The Chicago Blackhawks came into Game 3 looking to grab a stranglehold on their series against the Minnesota Wild, but what they got instead was a game full of question marks as the Wild won a 4-0 decision on Tuesday night in St. Paul.
The game wasn’t a lost cause until late, when the Wild scored four unanswered goals in the third period to roll to victory. Erik Haula got things started with his goal on the rush just two minutes into the frame, and from there the Wild cruised to victory.
The question facing the Blackhawks now is a simple one: What on Earth happened? How did a team that had prevailed despite not playing its best hockey in the first two games of this series suddenly find themselves reeling after just one Wild goal?
At least part of the answer is contained within the question itself. The Blackhawks hadn’t played the kind of hockey that they are capable of playing in the first two games of this series, and frankly they had been fortunate to win both contests. The Wild came within an eyelash of taking the lead in Game 1 before Patrick Kane swooped in and saved the day, and the Hawks won in Game 2 after nearly blowing yet another third period lead in that contest.
Of course, there are still things that they are doing right. They are still doing a good job on the penalty kill despite allowing Zach Parise to score a late power play goal in the third period on Tuesday. They are also getting some good scoring chances from some of their role players, as guys like Brandon Saad and Bryan Bickell are still pushing the tempo and creating opportunities.
If one is to be honest about Game 3, the real answer to the question of what ailed the Blackhawks in the game was that they not only folded under the pressure of the Wild attack in the third period, but they also were out of sorts on their back end, and that is squarely on head coach Joel Quenneville.
Going into Game 3, the coach had decided to bench Nick Leddy in favor of Sheldon Brookbank (some speculated this was due to injury, but when Leddy played less than one minute in the third period of Sunday’s win, Quenneville termed it a “coach’s decision”), and as a result, he had shuffled up his defensive pairings in order to keep the right hand-left hand shot combinations that he prefers. Duncan Keith was paired with Brookbank in the game, while Niklas Hjalmarsson was slotted with Michal Rozsival and Brent Seabrook teamed up with Johnny Oduya.
The blue liners seemed to have a difficult time reading what the other player on their line was going to do on some of the Wild rushes in that third period, most notably on Mikael Granlund’s goal to make it a 2-0 game. Seabrook and Oduya both tried to commit to one side of the ice and then the other, and the resulting confusion allowed for a pass through the defense that sealed the game for Minnesota.
Quenneville said after the game that the move to bench Leddy was more about rewarding Brookbank for playing well in Seabrook’s absence during the series against the St. Louis Blues, but the move begs the question: why break up defensive pairings that have been playing well enough for the Hawks to win their last three consecutive games with the groups intact? Leddy may not have played his best game of the year in Game 2, but allowing a bad goal and committing a bad penalty shouldn’t be grounds for blowing up defensive pairings, especially when the team is up 2-0 in the series.
There is an old saying that the hammer should never adjust to the nail, and that’s exactly what the Hawks did by over-tinkering with their lineup on Tuesday night. The resulting effort was a mess in all areas, and if Quenneville watched the same game that we all did, he will reverse his decision and reset everything to normal for Game 4 on Friday.