Throughout the Stanley Cup playoffs, Chicago Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville has made heads turn with the various line combinations that he trotted out, but there’s something especially head-scratch-worthy about his latest assemblage.
Yesterday, Quenneville set the Twitterverse on fire by changing up the lines that had carried the Hawks through their Game 4 and 5 victories over the Los Angeles Kings. The biggest change was the one that saw Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, who had clicked so well in the previous two games that Kane had scored four goals, separated once again.
Here are the lines, courtesy of NHL.com’s Brian Hedger:
Before we get back to the top line shuffle, there is something else different about the lines that caught the attention of plenty of Blackhawks fans. Viktor Stalberg, who was famously benched for the first two games of the team’s series against the Detroit Red Wings, is once again out of the Hawks’ lineup, and in his place is Brandon Bollig.
The 26-year old forward, known more for his prodigious beard than his on-ice ability, has played in only three postseason games for the Blackhawks, picking up zero points, three shots on goal, and is averaging a little over seven minutes per contest.
Most people would choose to express their indignation toward the new-look Hawks lineup by focusing on Bollig’s appearance, and there is a good deal of reason to that hatred. Bollig only playing seven minutes a game essentially means that other forwards like Kane and Bryan Bickell will likely begin to be double-shifted if Bollig gets into penalty trouble, or begins to routinely blow defensive assignments. That happened to Kane during the Minnesota series, but with three days of rest between games, clearly Queneville is thinking that he can do that again if Bollig falters.
There surprisingly isn’t the amount of hand-wringing over the absence of Stalberg from the Game 1 lineup that there was following the Minnesota series when he was benched. He hasn’t done much of anything in these playoffs, playing fourth line minutes despite being paired up with guys like Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw, as well as Bickell on occasion. His three assists and 21 shots in 15 games for the Hawks clearly isn’t good enough for Quenneville, and fans seem content with letting him exit the lineup against a more physical Bruins team.
The moves that really don’t make sense are the ones in the top half of the Hawks’ lineup. During the last two games of the Western Conference Finals, the top line of Bickell-Toews-Kane seemed to be working really well, as both wingers were goal-scoring machines. Furthermore, it looked like Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp were quite comfortable with the plodding Michal Handzus, who continued his impressive scoring run as of late with the primary assist on Hossa’s game winning tally in Game 4.
Swapping forwards between the two lines, in short, makes little sense. Kane clearly engaged more in the swing of the game when he was skating alongside his longtime cohort Jonathan Toews, who has gone through his own struggles during the playoffs and seemed to benefit from a familiar face by his side. By contrast, Kane looks slow and out of sorts when having to play alongside the significantly less athletic Handzus, who for all his great passing ability can’t seem to get in sync with guys with great side-to-side speed like Kane has.
Obviously Quenneville never seems wedded to lines, so it feels foolish to judge him so harshly for the current construct of his lineup. In spite of those reservations though, it does still seem odd that going into the Stanley Cup Final against the Boston Bruins, a coach would want to break up lines that clearly were working in previous games.