There are a lot of match-ups you could have looked at headed into the Stanley Cup Final and said to yourself that Boston or Chicago had the edge.
Top-six forwards: Chicago. Forward depth: Boston. D corps: Chicago. Goaltending: Boston. And so on. The thing with these teams was that their strengths and weaknesses seemed to fit together like a 2,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. There wasn’t a lot of wiggle room, and for every measure one side boasted, the other seemed to offer a strong enough countermeasure that more or less neutralized it, at least in theory.
One thing that was less-often discussed was how important a role the two coaches would play in this series, which was so often framed as being something like the immovable object meeting the irresistible force. But the reason Boston is up two games to one right now, and holding serve with Game 4 tonight, is because Claude Julien has managed his bench perfectly, and Joel Quenneville has very much not.
This goes well beyond the ridiculous and almost elementary misuse of Jonathan Toews in Game 3, which Bourne pointed out yesterday. I almost feel like you have to give him a pass for that based on the fact that Marian Hossa was replaced by Ben Smith, which is hardly a replacement at all. This problem of putting the Kruger-Toews-Frolik line on the ice wasn’t necessarily that those guys can’t keep up with him offensively (they can’t) but rather that Julien had last change and kept sending out Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg out there against him, with the excellent possession line of Horton-Krejci-Lucic to boot. All those players got at least eight and a half minutes of even strength time against Toews in Game 3.
Again, this was in Boston, and obviously last change weighed heavily there. So why on earth weren’t things different in Chicago, when Quenneville had the benefit of last change? He got 15 of his more than 18 5-on-5 minutes against Chara, 14-plus against Seidenberg, and at least 11 against the various members of the Krejci line. Does it not, at some point, make sense to get him out there against any other defenders? The 2:36 or so he got against Johnny Boychuk, for instance, should really be close to double that amount if you’re trying to get your No. 1 center going, shouldn’t it?
I understand the desire to run Toews out there against Boston’s top line given his own defensive capabilities, obviously, but there is, I believe, such a thing as double-shifting. And yet, the average number of minutes at 5-on-5 Jonathan Toews has played with Patricks Kane and Sharp in all of the first three games of this series combined is literally just 16 minutes. I can’t begin to understand that when you’ve played 12 or so periods of hockey and have just five goals to show for it.
Likewise, the inability to keep Kane and Sharp away from Patrice Bergeron has plagued the Blackhawks. At some point, I understand, you run out of minutes in which neither he nor Chara on the ice, but it’s not even like the matchup is all that tough beyond the world-class checking of the guy who should have won the Selke. The defenseman against whom Kane is most often matched up at 5-on-5 is Andrew Ference, who has been a possession black hole the last two seasons and in these playoffs as well. In this series alone, his corsi is minus-34 What’s the point of having home ice if you’re not going to use it?
Meanwhile, Julien has, to his credit, sit back and allowed this to happen. But he’s also done more than that. The gambit to put the Krejci line out against Toews and Co. most nights is one that he trusted to work because, hey, it did in the Pittsburgh series. And like Dan Bylsma before him, Quenneville has refused to adapt his team’s style.
Going hard to the net isn’t the way to put the Bruins on the ropes. Chicago did the opposite in Game 1, using its speed, and got four goals out of it (all four came immediately after or within a few seconds of the Blackhawks entering the zone). Toronto did it all the times it was successful in generating offense. How have they scored the one goal they’ve gotten outside Game 1? By Kaspars Daugavins sitting on Tuukka Rask’s head in the middle of a scrum. I kind of feel like you can’t count on that happening too often the rest of the way.
Their most famous difficulty, obviously, is the power play, which is 0-fer in the series, and looks like it should be worse than that. It’s so bad it should attract flies, but this is something that coaching should theoretically be able to fix though. Quenneville is succeeding in getting his best players out there all at the same time with the man advantage, but they’re all standing in one spot so long while two guys pass it back and forth until the Bruins steal and get a clear that you begin to worry birds will start building a nest on Sharp’s shoulder. Getting movement on the power play shouldn’t be difficult for Chicago, with all that skill of theirs, and yet the only thing keeping everyone on both the first and second unit from just leaning against the halfboards with their hands in their pockets is that hockey pants don’t come with pockets.
(With all that having been said, though, there is one factor that make Quenneville’s baffling inability to coach this team effectively in this Cup Final a little more understandable. The team has gotten absolute crap luck in pretty much all three games; they’ve been dominant in corsi, particularly in Chicago, and can’t seem to sneak much past Rask nonetheless. At some point the argument is no longer that Boston is just too stout a defensive force, and instead shifts to “The Blackhawks can’t buy a goal.” Can you reverse your luck as quickly as Chicago needs? They better hope so. The Bruins aren’t going to do it for them. Not at this point.)
It was always difficult envisioning a way in which Chicago could pull off winning even once during this two-game stretch in Boston. It’s even more difficult now. The series, rather oddly, feels pretty much over, and has since the Bergeron power play goal. You just can’t see much of a way for them to win in Boston unless the puck starts jumping into the net in ways it hasn’t for anyone but the Leafs in this entire Bruins playoff run. If they can’t win tonight, with Hossa back in the lineup at whatever-percent, this series might not even make it back to Boston.
And if it doesn’t. It won’t be on Toews or Kane or luck. It’ll be on Joel Quenneville, who hasn’t made a good decision yet in this series.