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Hawks’ Quenneville making all the right moves in playoffs

Updated: June 7, 2014 6:28AM



To say coach Joel Quenneville had the Blackhawks on cruise control last spring would be unfair. He had to drag his team through a first-round series after it played in virtually no meaningful games during an utterly dominant regular season. He had to match wits with Detroit’s Mike Babcock. And he picked the right time to unite Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane against the Kings and then again against the Bruins.

But compared with the early stages of this postseason, ­Quenneville might as well have been sitting on the bench with his feet up on the boards.

Eight games into what could be another deep run, ­Quenneville has blown up his shutdown fourth line. He has swapped Michal Handzus and Ben Smith, and moved Smith to center. He has run through ­several line combinations, pulling the ­trigger on swapping Marian Hossa and Kane at just the right time in Game 4 against the Blues. He handled Brent Seabrook’s three-game suspension by putting ­Sheldon Brookbank with Duncan Keith rather than shaking up all three defensive pairings. He benched Kris Versteeg in Game 6 against St. Louis and surprised many by going with Joakim Nordstrom over Peter Regin or Jeremy Morin. Then he inserted Morin when Andrew Shaw was injured. He benched Brandon Bollig in Game 2 against the Wild. And he benched Nick Leddy for the third period of that same game.

After standing pat throughout the regular season and most of the postseason in 2013, Quenneville, a notorious tinkerer, has been in his element this spring. And nearly ­every move has worked out.

“As a player, you get a real good sense, a real good appreciation for Joel’s ability to see those things and make those right moves,” Keith said. “We’ve got a lot of depth on our team and our organization, and when he makes those decisions, it seems like the guys who come in have come in and played well.”

Quenneville has won the early chess match with Wild coach Mike Yeo. With his stalwart fourth line no longer around — Smith’s on the second line, Marcus Kruger is on the third line and Bollig is in the press box — Quenneville turned to Toews to shadow Zach Parise’s line, and through two games, the Wild’s top six forwards have zero goals.

Quenneville will have a tougher task in Game 3 on Tuesday as the series shifts to Minnesota. As the home team, the Wild will have the last change, meaning Yeo can keep Parise away from Toews. Rebuilding a genuine checking line could help.

“I don’t think many lines, or any lines, in the league start 90 percent of their shifts in their own end, and you’re confident that you can play them against the other team’s top line, on the road or anywhere,” Quenneville said of his erstwhile fourth line. “It was very effective for us, and I don’t think we had that type of a line over the course of the last five years. It was kind of a unique situation, and . . . it’s kind of evolved into a different line.”

Quenneville wouldn’t say whether Nordstrom and Morin would stay in the lineup or if Bollig or Versteeg (who has been sick the last two games) might return to the lineup. Quenneville said Bollig had a “real strong regular season,” playing all 82 games, but that he needs to play faster in the playoffs. He wants Versteeg to play more simple and direct — north-south, not east-west.

With 15 capable forwards and seven capable defensemen, Quenneville has the depth to send messages and spark internal competition, and the nerve to make drastic changes when warranted. And while he’d love to have the consistency he had last spring, he has shown already this postseason that he has no problems taking a more hands-on approach.

“It’s the coach’s decisions,” ­Hossa said. “And he seems like he’s always got the right ideas.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MarkLazerus



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