It looks like Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville is going to experiment with his team's wealth of talent to start the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Quenneville rolled out some interesting new forward lines Tuesday during an hour-long practice. It's likely he will use them Thursday at Scottrade Center against the St. Louis Blues to start Game 1 of a tough first-round series in the Western Conference (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC).
Captain Jonathan Toews and right wing Patrick Kane returned to a full practice for the first time since injuries knocked them out of the final stretch run in the regular season, but their lines weren't the same.
"That's what the coaches are here for, to set some lineups," said Kane, who's usually in the top-six forward group. "I think all of us have played with each other at one point or another, whether it's with the line we're with now or with some other players. I think that's one of the strengths of our team, is the depth and how many players can play in different situations. It seems like we've got a lot of balance throughout our lineup right now, so I'm sure that's what they're looking for."
Putting Saad on the top unit, where he played left wing for almost the entire 2013 regular season, was equally eyebrow-raising. Saad's production and play steadily declined during the second half of this season. He was recently benched in a big game against the Blues heading into the final week even though Toews (upper-body injury) and Kane (lower body) were sidelined.
"We feel he's capable of playing against top guys," Quenneville said. "He's played with [Toews] a lot the last couple years. [Versteeg], as well, has played in some big situations. We'll see how that all works out. [It] certainly has the capability of working well together."
Chicago's second line was centered by veteran Michal Handzus with left wing Patrick Sharp and right wing Marian Hossa. The fourth line was a trio that played together almost the entire season. Brandon Bollig skated at left wing, Marcus Kruger was in the middle and Ben Smith went back the right side after filling in higher in the lineup minus Toews and Kane.
Going without one "super line" packed with high-scoring forwards ought to give the Blues' coaching staff some tough decisions in the matchup game. St. Louis has home-ice advantage and will get the last line change in the first two games, which is often vital in matching lines.
Splitting up Chicago's top offensive talent onto three different lines should get one or two of those units away from St. Louis' top defense pairing of Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester.
"I thought all the lines have comparable ingredients with the ability to score and play without the puck as well," Quenneville said. "They had a lot of lines together in the playoffs last year, can fluctuate with centers, as well, but [Kane] and [Bickell] were together a lot last year in the playoffs."
They were also effective.
The part that's new is that Bickell isn't moving into the top six. Kane is dropping to a checking line this time. Coming off what appears to be a knee sprain, Kane said he's happy overall with his mobility wearing a knee brace. There are, however, a couple "limitations."
Whether Kane's injury plays into the new role is uncertain, but it gives him some added protection against the hard-hitting Blues. Bickell and Shaw are scrappy and play best when they're involved in physical play.
"We need to finish our checks, get [Kane] the puck, open the ice up for him and just let him play his game," Bickell said. "I know when he has the puck, he's got a lot of poise and a lot of good things can happen."
If not, Quenneville probably won't stick with the new configuration for long. If he needs an offensive kick start, Quenneville has several proven combinations he can use in a pinch. He's gotten good results from putting Sharp, Toews and Kane together in the past, and for most of this season he played Toews with Sharp and Hossa.
That trio was one of the NHL's best until Quenneville broke them up shortly after the break for the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
"Whether you revert back or you like the matchup, even in the course of the game, you can always move one or two guys around without really rearranging too much," Quenneville said. "[It's good] having that flexibility and some guys that can play both sides and go in the middle as well. Every game [could] be different, but right now you like the balance."
Shaw, who filled in for Toews at center on the top line to finish the season, likes it too.
"It just shows the depth our team has," he said. "We've got a lot of great players up front and on the back end. You've got a little bit of everything on each line: speed, skill and people who are going to throw the body around. It's exciting. It's playoff time and I think everyone's pretty pumped for it."
Author: Brian Hedger | NHL.com Correspondent
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