Chicago Blackhawks players are going to have to be a lot better in the next week if they are to retain ownership of the Stanley Cup. But their coach will have to improve even more.
Just one man’s opinion, but Joel Quenneville lost Game 4 for the defending Cup champs Friday night with a panicky, frenetic, no-real-plan game plan against the Minnesota Wild. He changed his lines more than Cher changes outfits during a concert, and the results were much less attractive.
Let’s get the disclaimer out of the way: Coach Q is one of the best in league history. He’s won more than 700 games, with two Stanley Cups as a head guy with Chicago and another as Marc Crawford’s right-hand man with Colorado in 1996. His team currently is tied two games apiece with Minnesota, with the series moving back to the Madhouse on Madison Sunday night.
But a 2-0 Chicago series lead is now gone, and Quenneville’s bad coaching, especially in Game 4, is a big reason. Hey, everyone has a bad night sometimes.
It would have been fine if Q had stuck with his new lines for at least a period in this one. He made some changes after a Game 3 loss; no problem with that. But then, after an opening six minutes in which his team registered zero shots on goal, he started changing them all around again.
If you’re going to make big changes, at least have the conviction to stick with them more than half a period.
Quenneville has had a reputation for mixing up his lines during a game, so this wasn’t much new for him. But the regular season is one thing, and the playoffs are another.
A playoff team needs more stability than that. Especially, one that was coming off just one loss, one that still had a series lead coming in. Chicago started off the game looking confused offensively, and stayed that way throughout, getting only 20 shots on goal in their 4-2 loss. One of the goals, by Patrick Sharp, was a Dairy Queen soft serve special allowed by Ilya Bryzgalov, who has faced only 39 shots on net the last two games.
Jonathan Toews started the game centering Bryan Bickell on his left and Ben Smith on his right. Marian Hossa started the game on the third line, with Michal Handzus and Patrick Sharp. After the first few, futile minutes, Hossa was back with Toews.
Later in the game, Toews was with Patrick Kane. Everything but the kitchen sink was thrown together as a possible line combination by Coach Q, and come to think of it, that might have worked better than the Bickell-Toews-Smith line.
Some in the Chicago media threw in the towel early trying to figure out Coach Q's game plan in this one. Take a look at this Tweet from Chicago Sun-Times Blackhawks beat writer Mark Lazerus:
New #Blackhawks lines: Everyone is skating with everyone and I'm done keeping track.— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) May 10, 2014
Coach Q used to be known more for his quick hook with goalies. In Game 6 of the 2001 Western Conference finals against the Avalanche while coaching the St. Louis Blues, he played Brent Johnson for the first time in the series in favor of Roman Turek. Johnson actually played well, but the Avs won anyway.
After the way Crawford played in Game 4 (two terrible goals, the killer being a long wrister to the far post by Nino Niederreiter to break a 2-2 tie), it would not be a shock if Q benches him for Game 5. It would not be, that is, if he had a better backup than Antti Raanta, whose .897 saves percentage in the regular season was one of the lowest in the league for someone who played at least 18 games.
Are the Blackhawks in big trouble?
Coach Q no doubt will stick with Crawford, and this loss wasn't on him as much as it was on his coach's lack of faith in his offense.
Chicago was second in the league at 3.18 goals per game in the regular season and had won six of its previous seven playoff games. Quenneville failed his team, therefore, in overreacting to one loss in Game 3. Minnesota seemed to sense the panic, and played like the team that knew it was going to win all along Friday.
Now, it's a series, and even some of hockey's biggest experts think Chicago is in trouble.
“There’s no question, this has upset written all over it,” said NBC’s Keith Jones after the game.
It does. A coach whose players have given him two Stanley Cup rings in the last four years should have placed a little more faith in them in a tough game on the road. Now it's a series again, and the unsettling question for Blackhawks players after Friday night may be:
Who are we?
“We’re going to have to figure out what we did wrong," said Crawford, according to Scott Powers of ESPNChicago. "You always want to look at it and try to fix things you need to fix for next game.”
Quenneville tried to "spread the wealth" on his lines, but spreading the wealth rarely works. You don't put studs like Hossa and Sharp on a third line, while guys like Ben Smith are playing up top. Play your best players together, and play them the most in a game.
If the Blackhawks are to retain the Cup, Quenneville will have to remember to dance with those who brought him.