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Quenneville searching for next level as Blackhawks advance

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks
Bill Smith / Chicago Blackhawks

Joel Quenneville is the most interesting coach in the world. He doesn’t always have time for extended interviews, but when he does, it is worth your time.

If you had to describe this Blackhawks season in one word, what would it be?

Quenneville: One word? Fun. But that would be for the regular season. I wasn’t too happy with our first round of the playoffs, even though we beat Minnesota. So, let’s see. The rest of the way, it could also be fun.

I would have guessed the word you chose would be “consistent.”

Well, we were that, and that made it fun. We have high caliber players, and we got just about everything out of everybody’s talent.

At season’s end, you talked about bad patches not in terms of games, but periods.

That’s true. It was an amazing run, even after we had a nice lead in first place and were almost looking for a purpose. Well, the guys found a purpose. If you have a game, you might as well play it right.

With 48 games in 99 days, you didn’t call many practices. Was there a rest-reward element involved because of your record-shattering point streak of 24 games?

Honestly, that was in place when the season started, to not practice often or long, to keep guys fresh. As it turned out, there were only a couple practices after a couple funny games. One was after Game 3 in Minnesota, the overtime loss last week. Just to get their attention. We weren’t sharp.

Why did you split your defense pairings?

Just trying to achieve more balance, as you do with forward lines, where you want to trust anybody against anybody. Johnny Oduya and Hammer (Niklas Hjalmarsson) started great, then Duncs (Duncan Keith) and Seabs (Brent Seabrook) came on. So we changed them up, Keith and Hjalmarsson, Seabs with Nick Leddy and it’s worked out. Which doesn’t mean you can’t change again.

Is your lineup juggling all a result of hunches?

I don’t like that word, hunch. Sounds like you’re gambling. You have chances to try things, to explore. I like “explore” better than hunch.

You mentioned high caliber players. Does that also mean high character?

Zero maintenance. I’ve never been a “cop” as a coach, but this group is exceptional. Starting right with the captain, Jonathan Toews. Plays hard minutes, plays the right way, a great leader. I don’t know how he’s not in the top three of MVP candidates. Patrick Kane, for the first half, was great. Did they take votes from each other? Exactly.

Does Toews deserve the Selke Trophy as best defensive forward?

Gotta be a lay-up for that, doesn’t he? A landslide.

You had Brandon Saad in your sights long ago, speaking of exploring.

Yeah, at the end of last year, we had him slotted right where he is. Liked him a lot. Then, during the lockout, we watched him in Rockford, and he wasn’t exactly flying. But when we started training camp, he was ready. You could see him playing on the top two lines, or top line.

Also, when many experts questioned your goaltending, you expressed confidence in Corey Crawford.

We liked his development. He had a strong rookie season. Look at all the top goalies—their next season might not be quite at that level. You don’t judge him on a couple overtime goals in last year’s playoffs. He still had the ingredients, and we saw some great stretches from him this year.

Ray Emery?

Also a terrific year. He came in healthy. The guys like playing in front of both of them. They’re not going to take a pay cut to be coach and decide which one is in the net. Both give us a chance to win.

In last Thursday’s clinching Game 5 against the Wild, you were up 4-1 with a 5-on-3 power play pending. You called a time out. Why?

I wanted to keep our first unit fresh. Toews, Kane, Hossa, Keith, Sharp. I hope nobody thought we were trying to run up the score, not if you know playoff hockey. Another goal was important. (Sharp scored to make it 5-1.)

What were the challenges of a short season, and what did you think you had when you finally started in January?

Our guys’ mindset was in the right place. Some had played elsewhere and were in condition. Others, like Toews, he’s always in great shape. They were ready to play. Did the guys come angry? Hopefully we exited last year with an appetite to expect more from each other. This team, when we’re mad or upset, we’re more effective than when we’re satisfied. Which isn’t often.

It wasn’t often, but you mentioned during the Minnesota series that maybe the Blackhawks were reading press clippings about how good they are.

And I meant it. There is another level we have to get to. First series, last three years, we haven’t reached it. We have to achieve another pace. In the 17th, 18th games of that streak, teams were after us like it was Game 7 of the Cup finals. Target on our backs. But we responded. We have to get there.

When you hear that the Blackhawks aren’t tough enough for a long playoff run, what’s your reaction?

Didn’t we hear that in 2010? Look, we have tough guys. By that I don’t necessarily mean guys who can fight, but guys who won’t be distracted by another team’s physical play. We are a puck possession team when we’re playing our game, and that means we’ll be hit. But one of the statistics I pay least attention to after a game is how many hits we had or whether we were out-hit. I’ll take the guys who aren’t influenced about whether they will be hit when they have the puck.

We know you aren’t satisfied. But are you happy?

My wife, Boo, and I have been a lot of places. We love it here. Our three kids love it here. Hopefully this is our last stop. I used to come in here when I was coaching St. Louis, and there were 5,000 people in the building. Now our place is full every night, and our fans are everywhere. Dallas, Columbus, Detroit. It’s like Canada. Our fans travel well. I step outside our hotel in Anaheim, and people even know me. They want my autograph! Amazing, what’s happened with hockey in Chicago. Now, we just have to step it up. The Red Wings have been good for so long. Detroit is a great organization. We’re not where we want to be to get where we want to go.

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