Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville is not afraid to tinker with line combinations — not in the regular season and certainly not in the postseason. Not before games and certainly not during games.
In many cases, his changes have paid off. In Game 3 Monday night, it didn’t. The coach’s decisions, especially pertaining to captain Jonathan Toews, were head-scratching at best.
Forced to improvise after one his top playoff performers, Marian Hossa, was a late scratch with an upper body injury, Quenneville shook Chicago’s combinations from top to bottom.
He plugged the struggling Toews on a line with fourth-line regulars Marcus Kruger and Michael Frolik.
Toews had been centering the top line with Hossa on his right. Hossa, who has appeared in four of the last six finals, tallied seven goals and eight assists in 19 playoff games. The Blackhawks knew all day he might not play, but it was a game-time decision, Quenneville said. Hossa is listed as day-to-day.
Former Boston College star Ben Smith, a 24-year-old who played in one game this season, replaced Hossa. Smith started on a line with Dave Bolland and Patrick Sharp.
Asked if losing Hossa rattled the Blackhawks, Duncan Keith adamantly said no.
“We’re grown men,” the defenseman said. “We’re not going to worry about that. If he can’t go, he can’t go.”
Said Toews: “It happens sometimes. You miss one of your best players and you have to find a way to play without him. We always say it’s an opportunity for other guys to step up.”
Quenneville was hoping it would be Kruger and Frolik, best known for anchoring Chicago’s penalty kill.
Toews, who won the Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward, has just one goal in 20 playoff games despite tallying a team-high 23 in the regular season. Toews scored seven postseason goals to help Chicago win the Stanley Cup in 2010.
Pairing Toews with two players who are a combined minus-1 with five goals this postseason? It doesn’t sound like a way to generate offense.
Toews wasn’t surprised by the coach’s moves.
“It’s always good to shake it up a little bit,” Toews said. “You might get a little chemistry.”
Quenneville defended the choice.
“I didn’t mind the lines,” Quenneville said. “I didn’t mind our start. I thought we had balance.”
Toews’s line was most often paired against Boston’s first line of Milan Lucic, David Krejci, and Nathan Horton.
“We kept them in their end for the most part,” Toews said. “We just need to find a way to score.”
Defensively responsible, maybe, but not offensively productive.
Toews’s line combined for six shots through two periods, but could not sustain pressure on Boston goalie Tuukka Rask.
This wasn’t Quenneville’s most dramatic coaching decision. That occurred prior to the Stanley Cup Final when the coach broke up a line featuring Toews and Patrick Kane, the tandem that combined for the double-overtime goal in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals.
The thought was that Boston’s shutdown defensive pair, Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg, would face Toews and Kane’s line every shift. This way, Quenneville could ensure at least one of them would not face Chara at all times.
Chara was on the ice for every Toews shift of the first period.
After Boston’s second goal in the second period, Quenneville broke up Toews’s line. The offense wasn’t producing anything and something had to be done.
At first it was Toews centering Bryan Bickell and the speedy Viktor Stalberg. Then it was Toews with Sharp and Stalberg.
On his last shift, Toews was paired with Kane. By that point it was too late.