Chicago Blackhawks: Why They Have the NHL's Top Captain-Coach Duo Right Now

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Chicago Blackhawks: Why They Have the NHL's Top Captain-Coach Duo Right Now
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Jonathan Toews and Joel Quenneville have held their respective posts for five years. Chicago's achievements in that span, and so far in 2013 alone, have been difficult for others to match.

The Chicago Blackhawks continued a pair of characteristic patterns when they won Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinal Wednesday night, 2-1, in overtime.

The win completed a comeback from a 3-1 series deficit against the Detroit Red Wings. It improved them to 3-0 when facing elimination from the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs and 2-0 when they have had a chance to end a series in this tournament.

It finished their eighth triumph out of 11 playoff series since the start of the 2008-09 season, when Jonathan Toews assumed the captaincy and Joel Quenneville stepped behind the bench as head coach.

The Blackhawks polished off their cathartic conquest of the upset-minded Wings after letting a 1-0 lead evaporate early in the third period of Game 7. They cultivated the deciding sudden-death strike via Brent Seabrook on the other side of an intermission that was effectively necessitated by a controversial call that negated a would-be winner by Niklas Hjalmarsson within the final two minutes of regulation.

As USA Today’s Kevin Allen reported after the fact, “Toews addressed the team after regulation, simply reminding everyone that losing Hjalmarsson's goal wasn't the end of their season.”

Allen later wrote that, because of Chicago’s massive personnel overhaul since winning a title in 2010, “Toews said not everyone on the roster understood the team's full potential before this series.”

To that point, Allen quoted Toews as follows: “But you really, really have to believe in what you can do, and how good you can be. And you have to put it in action on the ice if you want to accomplish that. Not everyone was believing, but they are now.”

There you go.

All of those turbulent, back-and-forth occurrences, culminating in a smooth landing for the favorites, speak to a working blend of resiliency and will to seize an opportunity with little or no delay.

When one takes a step back and assesses the first half of this playoff run as well as its four predecessors, that combination of qualities plainly defines the Toews-Quenneville tandem in Chicago.

Observers saw that throughout this year’s 48-game regular-season sprint. Going in, the Blackhawks were coming off back-to-back first-round losses (though they were a cumulative 4-2 in elimination games) and people inevitably pondered if Quenneville’s tenure was on thin ice.

Coming out of that and going into the playoffs, they were regular-season champions and had clinched the majority of their playoff-seeding milestones without any delay.

Now observers are seeing it again in the current postseason, just as they have in past postseasons.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, the Blackhawks are now going to the third round of the playoffs for the third time in five years.

All that has just been said of Chicago in the Toews-Quenneville era cannot be said about anybody else serving any other franchise in the same capacity. Nobody else has made this far this frequently in the past five playoffs nor has anybody else sculpted a better record in elimination or closeout games.

Just go to NHL.com or any of the teams’ official websites and keep a tally while filing through their playoff schedules since 2009. Here is what the cumulative calculations will yield for seven other prominent playoff mainstays who have gone through all or the bulk of the last five seasons with the same coach and/or captain.

Boston, since finishing first in the Eastern Conference in the 2008-09 regular season, is 5-3 when facing elimination and 8-12 when trying to close out an opponent.

Detroit, since it began its defense of the 2008 championship, is 8-4 when facing elimination and 6-8 when trying to close out an opponent.

The New York Rangers, under the recently fired John Tortorella, were 6-4 when facing elimination and 3-4 when trying to close out an opponent.

Pittsburgh, under Dan Bylsma, is 5-3 when facing elimination and 7-8 when trying to close out an opponent.

San Jose, under Todd McLellan, is 3-5 when facing elimination and 5-6 when trying to close out an opponent.

Vancouver, since returning to the playoffs in 2009 after missing them in 2008, is 3-5 when facing elimination and 5-6 when trying to close out an opponent.

Washington, since the 2008-09 regular season, is 6-5 when facing elimination and 3-8 when trying to close out an opponent. That includes a 2-4 record in elimination games and 2-7 in closeout contests since the Capitals named Alex Ovechkin their captain in the winter of 2010.

Notice any common threads? Some of these teams have winning records when they must win to extend their season but are all sub-.500 when they can throw the knockout punch.

The Blackhawks are the only team in the last five years with a winning record in both situations, and they are several strides above .500 on both counts. Going into the conference finals, they are 7-3 when down to their final loss, translating to a slightly better percentage (.700) than the Wings (.667), and 8-2 when their adversaries are on the ropes.

One of Detroit’s last eight closeout wins, by the way, came against Toews and Co. when the then-21-year-old Blackhawk joined his mates in feeling their first growing pains in their first playoff run in 2009. Since then, not a single opponent has dealt Chicago that season-ending fourth loss on its first opportunity.

Looking ahead, an intriguing measuring stick awaits for each of the two Western Conference finalists.

The defending cup champion Los Angeles Kings are 6-5 in closeout games, just barely above .500, so far in the 18-month-old tenure of head coach Darryl Sutter.

Until this week, Sutter’s Kings had one other common thread with the Blackhawks: They had yet to play a Game 7 that was forced by the opposition; Chicago having forced its rubber match against Vancouver in 2011 and Detroit this year.

That changed when L.A. swung and missed on its chance to shut down the Sharks in Game 6 of their recent series.

The Kings will surprise no one if they can seize the upper hand early and eventually reach the three-win mark in this series before the Blackhawks do. They have likewise proven that they are also resilient enough to delete a deficit, particularly when they surmounted an initial 2-0 pothole to beat St. Louis in the first round.

But regardless of which course this series takes, when it gets to the brink, they will need to be ready to tame a different animal in the Quenneville- and Toews-led Hawks.

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