Blackhawks finding balance on all four lines

Blackhawks finding balance on all four lines

When Joel Quenneville decided to reunite Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews on the top line, you knew it wasn't an ideal situation.

The Blackhawks only utilize that "nuclear option" during desperate times, and trailing the St. Louis Blues 3-1 in their first-round series qualified as one.

But pairing them together has often worked out in their favor, as it did towards the end of the 2015 Western Conference Final against the Anaheim Ducks and Stanley Cup Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It's again reaping benefits for all four lines, which is a large reason why the Blackhawks have climbed back to even up the series 3-3.

"When we went to those lines, I thought we had balance," Quenneville told reporters Sunday. "I think that was what we were looking for. Putting Kaner and Tazer (together), we always find that's when we're in a real bad spot or tough spot. We tried that and we felt that we had more balance. With the way the lines turned out in the game, we liked the way we played."

Those in-game adjustments by Quenneville is what makes him of the best coaches in NHL history, and the Blackhawks continue to roll with and trust the changes without questioning them.

Marian Hossa and Andrew Ladd, both of whom are normally on the first line with Toews, were bumped to the third line with Marcus Kruger, but both of them have been around chess-master Quenneville long enough to know it's a tactic, not necessarily a demotion.

"Not at all," Hossa said. "I mean, you know we keep rolling four lines and quite honest, two nights ago, being on the third line I played more ice time than when I was on the first line. ... I'm glad to help the team, especially at my age, any way I can. I have defensive responsibilities, but Joel wants us to create something offensively too. So it's pretty much the same. My job didn't change."

While the double-overtime victory in Game 5 surely played a big part in those increased minutes, Hossa's right in a sense he's getting more ice time, as the new third line of Ladd, Kruger and Hossa finds itself out more against the line of Jaden Schwartz, Jori Lehtera and Vladimir Tarasenko, which has had its way against the Blackhawks this series.

That also opens up the first and second lines to produce more offensively, and it showed in Game 6. 

Kane, Toews and Andrew Shaw combined for one goal and three assists, while Richard Panik, who also saw time on the top line, registered a helper.

The Blackhawks are starting to come in waves, and the ability to change on the fly and gel quicky is what has helped the reigning Stanley Cup champions have so much success in the playoffs under Quenneville.

And it will be key to a Game 7 victory in St. Louis on Monday night.

"As you go along in a series, I think you start seeing your own teams, who's playing well, who's deserving of most ice time, who's playing in situations where they deserve more quality and quantity," Quenneville said. "That's part of how we make the alterations. In games we're looking for balance, we still think we need four lines to win.

"As we've gone along here, probably all year long, that's one area we didn't feel it was nailed. I like the progress we're seeing in the series right now. Probably the best we've had all year long so that's a positive sign right now. That's what we're looking for."

How Blackhawks plan to handle Corey Crawford's workload

How Blackhawks plan to handle Corey Crawford's workload

Corey Crawford is back and it didn't look like he skipped much of a beat. The Blackhawks were handed their first regulation loss of the season to the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday, but the 33-year-old netminder stopped 27 of 30 shots (.900 save percentage) in his season debut and made several timely saves to keep his team in it.

In the larger picture, it was a win based on how well Crawford looked between the pipes.

"Yeah, I think it is," coach Joel Quenneville said after practice on Friday. "It's one of things we were wondering, how he would handle post-game and how he came in today. Very encouraging signs. He felt good in all aspects of what he went through and dealt with, and practiced well today too, so that was good."

The first one is in the books.

But what's the plan going forward? Will Crawford be on a "pitch count" or will they treat him like they have in past seasons when he was healthy?

In the past, Crawford has generally started somewhere in between 55-58 games per season. Part of that has been because of injuries. Another part is the Blackhawks have had reliable backups, which allowed them to give Crawford an extra night off here and there to keep him fresh.

It's not unreasonable, though, to think Crawford could flirt with 50 starts, considering he missed only five games to start the season. And they can still accomplish that by playing it safe.

The Blackhawks have 13 more back-to-backs this season, which gives them the opportunity to start Cam Ward at some point in each of them. That leaves room for another 15 or so starts to sprinkle in for Ward that could serve as rest days for Crawford and still being on track to start around 50.

Obviously, the Blackhawks want to be careful with how much they ask of Crawford because concussions are tricky to deal with and every player responds differently to it.

His return comes at a time where the Blackhawks are slated to play seven games in 11 days after playing just two in the previous 10. Thursday marked the start of that stretch.

"He’ll tell us how he feels and we’ll go from there and make those decisions," Quenneville said.

The Blackhawks have been on record saying they prefer not to carry three goaltenders. But in this case it makes sense. At least in the short term.

Quenneville said Friday that the Blackhawks will reevaluate the situation at the end of the weekend following the beginning of a busy stretch where they'll play three games in four days.

"Yeah, that’s the mindset," he said. "Let’s see how we handle these three in four and then we’ll address it."

Crawford is expected to start on Saturday in Columbus, making it his second start in three days. That's when they'll get a better sense of how he's handling things.

If it were up to him, Crawford said he feels he's prepared for it.

"Yeah, sure," Crawford said. "Why not? I've been working hard with [strength and conditioning coach Paul Goodman]. He's got me where I need to be, so I'm in shape right now. Why not?"

Hawks Talk Podcast: Thoughts on Corey Crawford's season debut


Hawks Talk Podcast: Thoughts on Corey Crawford's season debut

In the latest Hawks Talk Podcast, Pat Boyle, Jamal Mayers and Charlie Roumeliotis recap Corey Crawford’s season debut after missing nearly 10 months with a concussion.

Mayers talks about the Kitty system that Niklas Hjalmarsson and Vinnie Hinostroza probably dealt with in their returns to Chicago.

The guys also discuss what’s next for Crawford, the upcoming matchup against Artemi Panarin and the Columbus Blue Jackets, and the Blackhawks’ biggest areas for improvement.

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below, and be sure to subscribe, rate us and write a review!