It has been two games of the Stanley Cup Finals and the Chicago Blackhawks have won both.
But Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are both still searching for their first point of the series. Dustin Byfuglien has the only point on the Blackhawks’ top line, an assist to Ben Eager on the game-winning goal in Game Two after Quenneville put Eager into Kane’s spot off the faceoff following Marian Hossa’s goal.
Throughout these playoffs, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville has been a master manipulator of his lineup to maximize matchups this spring. Of course he’s looked like a genius for putting Dave Bolland, suddenly a shutdown center, against the top scoring lines in each of the last three series, but every subtle move he’s made so far has worked to perfection. The Hawks have confused, frustrated and, ultimately, defeated the Canucks and Sharks by playing perfect matchups and are starting to work the same magic against Philadelphia.
So, as the Hawks head to Game Three, should Quenneville mix up the lineup again to get Kane and Toews on the board?
The biggest reason to split up the top line would be to force Flyers coach Peter Laviolette to make a decision: does Chris Pronger play man-against-man versus Byfuglien, or does he play against two of the Blackhawks’ best skill players in Toews and Kane? That is precisely the decision-forcing movement that Quenneville has used throughout the postseason to maximize his roster’s depth to win games.
Pronger has been effective against Byfuglien (cough… crosscheck… cough), and has been able to break up a number of rushes from Kane and Toews. You can question the ethics and legality of Pronger’s approach, but you cannot question his effectiveness.
If the Blackhawks wanted to make a move, they could do it in Game Three. Considering how effective Tomas Kopecky has been in the first two games of the series, a possibility putting him with Hossa’s line wouldn’t hurt the productivity of that line. That would allow Quenneville to bump Troy Brouwer, still physical and also playing effective hockey, up to the top line where he was effective for most of the season.
Moving Byfuglien to the checking line with Bolland and Versteeg wouldn’t be a terrible move, either; that’s where he spent a big part of the regular season.
The argument against moving Byfuglien away from Toews and Kane (and, in theory, taking Pronger with him) would be that the Flyers are playing into the Blackhawks’ hands by loading up against the top line.
Pronger is playing between 27-32 minutes a night in the postseason. If he’s spending 20 of those against the Hawks’ top line, he’s only spending seven to 10 of the 40 remaining minutes against the Blackhawks’ secondary lines. Looking at the box scores from the first two games of the series, in which just one of the Hawks’ eight goals have come from the to line* (again, Eager’s was technically on the top line), the Blackhawks depth is creating mismatches all over the ice for the other Flyers’ defensemen.
So the question to Quenneville is if he’s comfortable with the way the matchups are playing, and if the Hawks young stars are comfortable playing a secondary role in the series. Toews, Kane and Byfuglien could continue to struggle against the Flyers top defensive pair but their struggles could ultimately lead the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup.