The most important storyline coming out of the Chicago Blackhawks' 2-1 loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Saturday has nothing to do with the playoffs. It has nothing to do with blown leads, point totals, tiebreakers or the Hawks’ upcoming tough schedule.
The Hawks need to figure out who’s going to shut down outstanding lines like the one that beat them on Saturday and then the rest will take care of itself.
Anaheim’s line of Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan and Corey Perry is as good as they come and the Hawks were caught using Jonathan Toews, along with Patrick Kane and Viktor Stalberg, to stop it while still trying to provide some offense.
It didn’t happen.
The Blackhawks’ top line, along with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, ended up minus-2. Maybe that’s one reason coach Joel Quenneville dramatically changed all the line combinations at Sunday’s practice before the Hawks left for Detroit for a Monday showdown with the Red Wings.
Troy Brouwer returned to the top line alongside Kane and Toews. Marcus Kruger moved up to play center between Bryan Bickell and Marian Hossa. Michael Frolik moved from center to wing next to Jake Dowell and Tomas Kopecky while Viktor Stalberg -- just recently promoted to Sharp’s spot -- was dropped back to the fourth line to skate with Ryan Johnson and Fernando Pisani.
Quenneville wouldn’t declare these combinations set in stone for Monday’s game but did reveal some strategy.
“There could be a makeup of more of a traditional checking line,” he said.
Who will comprise that line is anyone’s guess, but it’s a sound idea. A defensive-minded Brouwer on the top line might start to address that issue, because asking a player like Kane to be part of a shutdown defensive trio is asking a lot without more help. Brouwer will be more active in that aspect of the game than Stalberg.
“We’re used to just kind of worrying about the offensive side and sometimes that’s going to happen,” Kane said of the Hawks' top line. “It seems like they wanted that Getzlaf matchup against us. We have to watch what we’re giving up. I’d say if we’re out there against those [top] guys we have to play as simple as possible. Try to control the puck in their end and keep it away from them.”
As Kane indicated, there is some upside to Toews’ line going up against the other team’s best: if they can make the opponent play in its own zone then the Hawks will get some offensive opportunities. For evidence, see past match-ups against Joe Thornton of San Jose.
“That is a little bit of a different role but they’ve had some assignments lately where they have been matched up against some top lines,” Quenneville said. “Going head-to-head, we don’t mind that matchup. In the past [Bolland] would have saw them a little bit more. [Getzlaf’s line is] playing 25 minutes.”
And therein lies the key. If the Hawks chose a top line-on-top line matchup that’s fine, but right now they’re forced to use Toews as a shutdown guy, which was Bolland’s old role. There is no other center on the team that can handle it. In fact, Toews and crew couldn’t handle it on Saturday either.
As for Geztlaf playing 24:57, Perry 25:13, and Ryan 21:06, isn’t it time for Quenneville to do the same with his stars? Only Toews surpassed 20 minutes on the ice (20:28) among the top-line forwards on Saturday. If the Ducks “like to change on the fly” as Quenneville said, he has the ability to do the same.
And if Quenneville wants a shutdown line that can still provide some offense, maybe he should break up Kane and Toews and play Hossa with the Hawks captain.
Kane, Toews, and Stalberg were caught too low in the offensive zone protecting a 1-0 lead in the third period. A quick transition the other way had Getzlaf’s line on a 3-on-2, which it finished with the league’s leading scorer, Perry, getting the goal. Later in the third, the Hawks were unable to win a board battle or cover Perry in front of the net on the winning score. These are all things a Bolland line would be better equipped to handle.
“Yeah, we haven’t played in that role a lot, but still, it’s no excuse not to play as well as we have in the past,” Kane said. “You miss [Bolland] a little bit but anyone could have prevented those two goals.”
Wouldn’t Hossa playing with Toews and Brouwer provide the answer Quenneville is looking for? Wouldn’t that free up Kane to fly the defensive zone as he likes to do? And wouldn’t Toews’ line still be able to provide some offense while shutting down opponents?
In some games, perhaps against Columbus, these issues won’t matter. But in no less than four (Detroit three times, Tampa Bay once) of their remaining eight games the Hawks have to contend with a dynamic top line. Who deals with them on the ice will go a long way to determining how many the Hawks win.
It’s a poor time to make changes but with two forwards missing, including a great defensive center, change is exactly what the Blackhawks have to deal with.
They’ve got two weeks to figure it out.
Brouwer on moving back to the top line to play with Toews and Kane:
“It’s been a while since I’ve done much of anything except for hit people,” he said. “For me, I really have to pick up my offensive game especially going into the playoffs.”
Kruger on his possible “promotion” to second-line center next to Hossa:
“Getting more used to it. Hopefully [I’ll] pick it up one level more. Hossa and I will talk on the ice and off.”
Quenneville on Kruger’s move:
“I think there is some upside offensively with him. His overall thought process is exactly what you look for in a centerman.”