The Chicago Blackhawks have been struggling in a big way on offense over their past several games, and with their backs firmly against the wall in their series with the Los Angeles Kings, head coach Joel Quenneville is mixing up his line combinations once again.
Here was what the coach cooked up during Wednesday’s pregame skate:
Bickell – Toews – Hossa
Saad – Shaw- Kane
Sharp – Handzus – Versteeg
Bollig – Kruger – Smith
The Blackhawks’ top line was reunited in all likelihood because of the fact the team is back on home ice, and Quenneville wants to match them up against the top line of the Kings, which has struggled against the Toews line all series long. Along with Marian Gaborik and Dustin Brown, the line centered by Anze Kopitar has yet to score against the Hawks’ top line, and taking them out of the equation is definitely a move that could work in the Hawks’ favor.
The second line’s composition is also interesting, with Brandon Saad playing a more formidable role than he has in previous contests in the series. He did score a goal on Monday night in the Hawks’ Game 4 loss, and he has been one of the team’s best skaters. Pairing him up with Patrick Kane will give the Hawks a ton of speed on that line, and if Andrew Shaw can avoid committing his usual assortment of silly penalties (he had two of them Monday night), then that line should hopefully have a better evening.
The third line though is where Quenneville has some serious question marks. Patrick Sharp has had a miserable time in this series, only scoring one goal in the waning seconds of Game 3. He is more than likely playing injured, lacking the usual quickness that he has displayed during the regular season.
Pairing him up with Kris Versteeg is questionable enough, considering that the forward’s possession numbers are atrocious, but putting him with Michal Handzus is also a Grade-A bad idea, as this chart via Jen from Second City Hockey illustrates:
So far in this series, Handzus has only had a positive Corsi differential (ratio of shots taken vs shots surrendered) once, and that came in a Game 4 loss that Handzus only played 2:52 of even strength ice time. Quenneville said after the game that he benched Handzus for the third period because his team needed offensive push, so his decision to put the veteran center on a line with a struggling forward (Sharp) and one that can’t seem to keep possession of the puck (Versteeg) is questionable at best and laughable at worst.
Of course, Quenneville isn’t likely going to use Handzus there for long. Odds are that Marcus Kruger and Ben Smith will fill in for third line shifts, but the point then remains: what’s the point of having Handzus in the lineup at all? Giving a player sheltered even strength minutes just to use him on the penalty kill is a luxury for a team, and those luxuries shouldn’t be afforded to a team trailing 3-1 in a series. Handzus is pretty much dead weight at even strength for any line that he’s on (remember that Kane’s numbers improved dramatically when he was away from Handzus), and he’s more of a liability than an asset, especially in a must-win situation like this.