By Jay Zawaski-
(CBS) Take a deep breath, Blackhawks fans. You can breathe again. Well, at least until Friday night’s Game 6 begins.
The Blackhawks’ thrilling 5-4 double-overtime victory in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final against the Kings on Wednesday night had a little bit of everything — a hot start, a blown lead, a thrilling comeback and an unlikely hero.
Somewhat lost in the victory, however, is an alarming reminder than some big lineup changes need to be made if the Blackhawks are going to force a Game 7.
Joel Quenneville is a very good head coach. He’s won 706 regular-season games. He’s won 98 playoff games and has led the Blackhawks to two Stanley Cup championships. He’s accomplished these feats by leaning heavily on the veteran players in whom he’s familiar and feels safe with. It’s certainly paid off, but had the Kings found a way to score in overtime, his unwillingness to make the necessary changes would have been the main headline.
There are three Quenneville “security blankets” who come to mind when discussing these Blackhawks: Michal Handzus, Brandon Bollig and Kris Versteeg.
In Game 5, Versteeg was the main culprit. After back-to-back horrendous shifts (the second of which led directly to a Dustin Brown goal), he was benched. That goal came at 11:08 of the second period. He never took another shift.
Yes, bad games happen for every player, but it’s been a trend most Chicago observers have seen from Versteeg since the playoffs began. He’s consistently been one of the worst players on the ice. He’s not scoring, he’s not defending, he’s not hitting. In the words of the great Bob Slydell from Office Space, “What is it … you’d say … you do here?”
Versteeg has been a problem for weeks — months even — but Quennville keeps going back to that well. The time for a change was weeks ago. Maybe Wednesday night’s performance was the last straw.
As for Bollig, I’ve been incredibly impressed with his improvement this season. He worked hard in the offseason to become a viable NHL player. He played all 82 games of the regular season and was a key contributor to an effective fourth line. The playoffs, however, are a different monster.
Bollig has one point and is a minus-6 in the playoffs. He’s only averaging 6:40 of ice time per game and isn’t being used late in games. The defense for playing him in the regular season is his defensive responsibility and discipline. Well, he’s struggled defensively in the playoffs. If you’re only going to play the 12th forward for six minutes, why not make it a guy who can put the puck in the net or create some offense? Right now, that roster spot is being wasted.
Handzus, who was Game 5’s overtime hero, has been a whipping boy for Blackhawks fans all year, mainly because he was Quenneville’s choice for the ever rotating second-line center position. He was miscast and overmatched in that role. Handzus, as he’s proved since moving down a line or two, has some value in specialized roles. He’s a solid penalty killer. He’s a cerebral and intelligent player who typically wins more faceoffs than he loses. He has value when used correctly. Hopefully, Quennville has finally learned his lesson and will use him as a specialist.
It’s highly unlikely anyone other than Versteeg sits out for Game 6. I expect Peter Regin to take his spot on the third line, possibly playing right wing on a line with Patrick Sharp and Handzus. While many (myself included) would like to see Jeremy Morin get a look, it won’t happen. There’s no way Quenneville will opt for an unproven rookie, no matter how good he’s looked this season, in an elimination situation.
Quenneville has won more hockey games than I ever will — and more than all but two people who have ever coached in the NHL — and has more knowledge in his pinky finger than I’ll ever have. Let’s hope his hunches and loyalties prove correct, and the Blackhawks can force a Game 7 rather than be sent to the golf course.
Jay Zawaski covers the Blackhawks for CBSChicago.com and 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @JayZawaski670.