As one of the Chicago Blackhawks’ best face-off takers and a guy who has solidified the team’s third line, it was a bit jarring before Game 3 of the Western Conference Final when Joel Quenneville decided to bench center Antoine Vermette.
After all, Vermette is a player that came to Chicago as a rental, but the price Stan Bowman paid for him was steep. Klas Dahlbeck, one of the organization’s best defensive prospects, went to Arizona in the deal, and so did the Blackhawks’ 2015 first round draft pick. In spite of that price tag, Quenneville hasn’t seemed to warm to Vermette during his stay in Chicago, and that was never clearer than when the veteran didn’t appear in the lineup Thursday night.
When the Blackhawks lost that game by a 2-1 margin and fell behind in the series, it wasn’t shocking that Quenneville put Vermette back in the lineup. The one question that remained was whether or not Vermette would bounce back from the disappointment of being scratched in such an important playoff game, but that is exactly what he did.
Vermette helped spur the third line to arguably their best performance of the postseason. Teuvo Teravainen was rewarded with extra shifts and showed incredible jump all night long after he was also scratched in Game 3. Patrick Sharp came close on several occasions to scoring goals, including an overtime breakaway chance that Frederik Andersen stopped.
Ultimately, though, the big story was Vermette, who delivered when the team needed him the most. In the second overtime period, Vermette created a scoring opportunity when he pushed a shot toward the net, and he was the one who followed it up by pouncing on the rebound and curling it just inside the far post to give the Blackhawks a 5-4 victory and a 2-2 tie in the series.
After the game, Quenneville didn’t come out and say that he had made a mistake in benching Vermette for Game 3, but he did offer up some effusive praise for a player that he hasn’t really warmed to.
“They're so competitive,” the coach said. “They want to play in the worst way and they want more ice time, as well. You can understand where he was at. Very disappointed. He's a great pro. Stayed with it. That line had a couple looks in overtime. I'm glad he finished it for us. That was a huge goal for us.”
The odds are that Vermette will not stay with the Blackhawks after the season ends (unless he signs a Brad Richards-style contract to help the team keep players like Brandon Saad and Marcus Kruger in the fold), but even if he leaves, he has still provided this team what they were asking for in the postseason. He has been defensively solid, helped generate possession time on the third line, and finally came through in a big way on offense in the Game 4 win.
For now, the question isn’t about whether or not Vermette will stay, or whether or not he is getting along with Quenneville behind the scenes. All that matters is that he produced when he needed to, and the Blackhawks are two wins away from a Stanley Cup Final as a result.