By Adam Hoge-
UNITED CENTER (CBS) — Joel Quenneville played in over 800 NHL hockey games and has coached in over 1,300 more, which is why his praise for Wednesday night’s first overtime period carries so much weight.
“I’ve seen a lot of games, I’ve been involved in a lot of games, but that might have been the greatest overtime I’ve seen,” the Blackhawks head coach said.
Granted, Quenneville’s team had just finished off an exhausting 5-4 double-overtime victory over the Los Angeles Kings to keep their season alive, so forgive him if there was a slight touch of hyperbole in his statement. After all, his losing counterpart had just provided the exact opposite analysis when asked about the last time he saw so much pace in an overtime period.
“Well, probably every one we’ve had,” Kings head coach Darryl Sutter said.
Reality probably sits a lot closer to Quenneville’s view of the period, which was an up-and-down, rush-after-rush affair. At one point the two teams went 7:56 without a whistle being blown.
The only thing the first overtime period lacked was a goal, as the Blackhawks didn’t pull out the victory until Michal Handzus beat Jonathan Quick with a backhander 2:04 into the second overtime.
“The whole game was some pretty good hockey,” Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford said. “Probably the highest pace we’ve seen all year.”
The result was the rowdiest atmosphere the United Center has seen all season. Maybe the fan base has been spoiled a little bit, but it’s been awhile since the building sounded like that.
“It was loud in here, probably the loudest it’s been all year,” Crawford said. “The crowd was cheering before whistles to get us going. That was a fun hockey game to play in. Even more fun to win.”
Of course, there were times when the building was quiet too — and for good reason. The Blackhawks built 2-0 and 3-1 leads with a great start, but eventually fell back on recent poor defensive habits and were trailing 4-3 by the time the second intermission came around.
But that’s when Joel Quenneville’s newest “discovery” came through again.
The head coach has always had a knack for pushing the right buttons with his lines, and he did it again Wednesday night with a second line of center Andrew Shaw and wingers Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad. A member of that line played a role in all five of the Blackhawks’ goals and when the night was over, Kane had four assists, Shaw had two assists and Saad had a goal and two assists.
“I thought they all had huge games,” Quenneville said. “Might have been a discovery.”
No kidding. That line was the reason why the Blackhawks got out to the lead they did and also the reason why they erased the deficit they fell into.
Down 4-3 at the start of the third period, Saad threw a shot off the left pad of Quick and the rebound bounced right to Ben Smith for a relatively easy goal. Then in overtime, it was Saad who carried the puck into the offensive zone after a Kings turnover and fed Handzus for the game-clincher.
“Personally, I thought Saad was the best player on the ice tonight,” Kane said. “He was bringing so much speed and puck protection. He was awesome tonight.”
At Wednesday’s morning skate, Saad vowed that his line could be “a big threat”, adding: “They put us together for a reason.”
Apparently that reason was to keep the Blackhawks’ season alive. And it worked.
Of course, the night didn’t come without its fair share of blemishes, including winger Kris Versteeg getting benched in the second period after he failed to clear the defensive zone more than once on a single shift, resulting in Dustin Brown tying the game at three.
“Tough shift there,” Quenneville said. “And he didn’t see the ice after that.”
Isolating it to one shift was kind of Quenneville. The reality is that all 6:48 of Versteeg’s ice time was rough.
But the head coach is not without some of the blame. While he pushed the right button by putting Shaw with Kane and Saad, he’s also the one who went with Versteeg and Brandon Bollig in the lineup over Peter Regin. Like Versteeg, Bollig was a minus-2 and spent some time in the dog house, only logging 8:20 of ice time. There’s little doubt Quenneville could have used Regin on the ice when he was forced to keep Versteeg and Bollig on the bench while double-shifting Kane in overtime.
Of course, Quenneville made plenty of other good decisions Wednesday night too. On top of hitting the jackpot with nine points from the Saad-Shaw-Kane line, he also swapped his defensive pairings, something he does a lot less frequently.
Last year when the Blackhawks were down 3-1 to the Red Wings in the playoffs, Quenneville made the decision to put Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook back together in Game 5 after they had played apart for most of the season. Wednesday night, he did the opposite, splitting the two of them up.
“Didn’t like the quality, the quantity of the goals we’ve given up in the last three games. That was the reason (for defensive changes),” Quenneville said.
Again, it worked. Ultimately, two great decisions outweighed one mistake.
And, more importantly, the Blackhawks’ season is still going. Now Quenneville hopes his changes are just as effective in the next two games.
“Hopefully what we discovered today could be a line for a long time,” he said.
It will be. At least for one more game.
Adam Hoge is a senior writer for CBSChicago.com and a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.