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Quenneville losing confidence in third line

1/15/2014

CHICAGO -- Where Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville's confidence is in a player or a line is often seen in pressure situations.

Quenneville turns to players he trusts and has no problem leaving the others on the bench. Last year's playoffs with Viktor Stalberg, Brent Seabrook and Nick Leddy are examples of that.

Quenneville gave a good idea where he stands with his third line of Bryan Bickell, Michal Handzus and Kris Versteeg on Tuesday against the Colorado Avalanche.

With the game on the line in the third period, Quenneville played Bickell all of 12 seconds in the period, gave Versteeg just two shifts for a total of 1:29 and Handzus had 28 seconds of even-strength ice time. Neither Bickell nor Versteeg played again after coming off the ice with 6:52 left in the third period.

Quenneville limited Bickell to 6:34 of even-strength ice time, Versteeg to 7:45 and Handzus to 6:13. Quenneville played the fourth line close to four minutes more than the third line.

Quenneville's lack of confidence in Bickell, Versteeg and Handzus has been building over the past few weeks.

Bickell's play has been mostly in question since he returned from his knee injury on Dec. 17. He's had one goal, one assist and a minus-six rating over those 13 games. During that span, he's been on the ice for three Blackhawks' goals and 10 opponents' goals. The Avalanche's lone even-strength goal Tuesday was scored with Bickell defending.

As Bickell's played has gone, so have his minutes. Quenneville has kept him to under 10 minutes in six games since returning. Quenneville gave him 11-plus minutes in consecutive games on Jan. 8 and Jan. 11, but Bickell has been back under nine minutes the past two games.

"Things haven't gone very well for him," Quenneville said after Tuesday's 3-2 overtime loss. "I think trying to find something encouraging is where we're at and to find a way to improve off these levels."

Quenneville said last week he believed confidence was a key factor in Bickell's play.

"I think we're trying to get him there where he's comfortable with the puck, he's comfortable with his positions and his thought process as well," Quenneville said. "He's a very important guy to our team, and we use him in a lot of different ways. He brings an element where we need. It's a work in progress. We'll keep working on that."

Versteeg's production has declined in recent weeks. He had a strong December where he had five goals, six assists and a plus-six rating. He also finally appeared to find a comfortable position across from Patrick Kane on the second line.

That second line hit its own skid in recent weeks, and Versteeg has been bounced around to different lines. He hasn't been able to regain a groove and has had one assist and a minus-three rating over the past nine games.

Handzus' numbers have also fallen over the past nine games. He has zero points and a minus-five rating during that span. He hasn't been on the ice for a Blackhawks' even-strength goal since Dec. 28.

Handzus said prior to Tuesday's game he needed to improve.

"I haven't played great," Handzus said on Tuesday. "I've got to be better. I've just got to be better.

"I haven't skated really well. I haven't been hard on the pucks, too. I just need to work on it. Everything picks up after that. I thought last game was a little bit better. I just need to keep building and get better and get where I need to be."

Right now, the Blackhawks could use Handzus, Bickell and Versteeg to get to where they need to be.