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Of Matchups And Men

June 5, 2015, 10:01 AM ET [416 Comments]
John Jaeckel
Chicago Blackhawks Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT

There are 6 games left in the 2015 Stanley Cup Finals. If the Tampa Bay Lightning win 4 of them, well, they win the Cup.

Can they? Absolutely.

So there are still some significant challenges ahead for the Blackhawks to win 3 more games.

As we all well know, and proven during the Western Conference Finals at the very least, the tone of a series, the trajectory of it, can change more than once.

So what happened in game 1 of the Cup Finals the other night, and the players responsible for it, can change.

In Games 6 and 7 of the WCF, it was the Hawks’ marquee players, primarily Duncan Keith and Jonathan Toews who delivered. Keith had a decent game Wednesday, +1 in over 29 minutes and he was very good at times.

Toews struggled a bit. Not a bad game, but Tampa had an answer for the Toews line, which included Patrick Kane, in the persons of Viktor Hedman and Anton Stralman on defense, and a steady diet of Cedric Paquette and Ryan Callahan upfront.

Kudos to Jon Cooper for a smart matchup wrinkle.

But Joel Quenneville, as we know, has a lot of cards up his sleeve. And the one he’s most likely to play next is a reunion of the Hawks’ second line for much of the season: Kris Versteeg, Brad Richards and Kane. Marian Hossa rejoins Toews and Brandon Saad.

I’m not so sure this is a move of necessity as it is of opportunity. There was a lot of media buzz about the great game Teuvo Teravainen had Wednesday night, but in truth, Teravainen, like the Hawks as a whole, improved throughout the game. To my eye and a couple of observers I spoke with, he was arguably the Hawks worst forward in the first period, turning pucks over, getting muscled off pucks in corners, too cute by half when he had the puck.

Although he didn’t make the scoresheet, Versteeg was the Hawks’ best forward for much of the game. He was an absolute beast down low and his legs were fresh. And reunited with Kane and Richards, Versteeg helped that line nearly solve Ben Bishop on the second, when Richards got off a good shot on a quality scoring chance in close.

This looks to be a smart move for Quenneville. Kane was the leading scorer in the league when he went down to injury in February, after playing all season with Richards and Versteeg. Saad, Toews and Hossa were one of the top 2-3 lines in the league.

There is no doubting the quality of the Lightning’s top lines and defense pairing. But after Hedman and Stralman, their defense becomes kind of ordinary. And after Paquette and Callahan, do they have another group of shutdown forwards?

Answer: maybe.

You don’t counter that line, with that kind of speed and creativity on the flanks, with Brian Boyle and Brenden Morrow.

I think you will continue to see a combination of Paquette’s and Val Fillipula’s line on Toews.

So, maybe the Triplets.

Tyler Johnson’s line, especially Ondrej Palat played some good defense Wednesday night, and maybe Cooper puts them out against the Richards/Kane line. But that also forces them to defend quite a bit. It’s easier to rack up points when your defensive responsibility is say Kevin Hayes or Chris Kreider than when it’s Patrick Kane.

That said, it also puts defensive pressure on Versteeg, Richards and Kane.

These are the kinds of matchup questions that coaches have to consider and tinker around. And where depth becomes the key factor in a playoff series.

In Game 1, at least, the Hawks’ forward depth was the difference. Teravainen’s “seeing eye” goal was the momentum changer. But his forecheck on J.T. Brown was the bigger play. And although some have called Teravainen’s goal lucky, that was an intentional “lob” shot, the play he made from the point on a crowded net in the 2013 WJC’s.

Lost also in the celebration of Teravainen and game-winning goal scorer Antoine Vermette, was how well Marcus Kruger’s line played. It was all 178 pounds of Kruger parked in front of Bishop that provided the perfect screen on Teravainen’s goal. Andrew Shaw was his usual self, agitating—some might say “biting”—relentless on the cycle, playing strong defense.

Where Theo Fleury, another small winger, or Brad Marchand, ditto, used to be called the Little Ball of Hate, Shaw is the Little Ball of Mayhem. And it appears Versteeg had a little of what was in Shaw’s pre-game 1 Smoothie as well.

Did Shaw actually bite Hedman in an end-board scrum after he took a shot at Kane in the first period? Well, maybe that’s Dan Carcillo’s lone contribution to the series, as that’s been known over the years to be part of his unique set of tools.

For now, with all the tinkering on the top lines playing to an essential draw, it is these lower line, lunch pail guys who could be the difference for Chicago.

I’ll have a Game 2 Preview tomorrow.


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