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Hawks still trying to find match for Wings' third line

by Brian Hedger

CHICAGO -- It was a shift that lasted one minute, 13 seconds and basically defined an incredible regular season for the Chicago Blackhawks.

Chicago held the puck in the Detroit Red Wings' zone on March 3 at Joe Louis Arena for almost that entire marathon shift using a combination of third and fourth liners, changing on the fly. It didn't result in a goal, but the shift swung momentum toward the Blackhawks and showed why they were such a difficult team to beat all season.

They had that "quality depth," that Chicago coach Joel Quenneville is always seeking and they could employ it at any time. Two-and-a-half months later, it feels like that shift happened decades ago. The Blackhawks are trailing their Western Conference Semifinal series 3-1 to the rival Detroit Red Wings and their third line is getting outperformed by Detroit's speedy, skilled trio of left wing Gustav Nyquist, center Joakim Andersson and right wing Damien Brunner.

"Our third line is way better than we were two months ago, that's the biggest thing," Andersson, who was on the ice for that dominating Chicago shift in March, said after Saturday's morning skate at United Center. "We played Chicago earlier in the year and they just dominated us a couple games. Now, in this series, we've been playing against different guys a little bit. They've been switching up their lines."

Indeed, scrambling to find the right combination to put more pressure on the Red Wings' defense, Quenneville trotted out yet another group of new line combinations in the morning skate for Game 5 on Saturday night at United Center (8 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS).

The third line, unless he changes it after pre-game warm-ups, has Brandon Saad on the left with Andrew Shaw in the middle and Viktor Stalberg on the right. That's two-thirds of what the Blackhawks' third line looked like almost all season, with Saad replacing Bryan Bickell on the left side.

Bickell will likely start on the second line with Michal Handzus at center and Patrick Kane on the right, but this series has proven just how important production from the bottom two lines can be in the playoffs.

Through the first four games, Detroit's third-liners have combined for three goals and four assists, while Chicago's have yet to record a single point. The Blackhawks have also used their most familiar combination of Bickell, Shaw and Stalberg in just one game -- the third game that Detroit won 3-1 at Joe Louis Arena to go up 2-1 in the series.

In that game, Stalberg appeared to score a game-tying goal in the third before it was disallowed because officials ruled Shaw's presence in the crease interfered with goalie Jimmy Howard. Stalberg, who was a healthy scratch the first two games, also hit the crossbar later in the period on a mini-break with Chicago trailing by two goals.

Meanwhile, Nyquist scored the game's first goal in the second period on a beautiful move after getting the puck off a turnover in the neutral zone. The difference has been noticeable, both on the ice and the score sheet -- and the Blackhawks know that needs to change.

"They have some more speed and skill," Stalberg said of the Red Wings' revamped third line, which wasn't cobbled together until later in the regular season. "[It's] not a prototypical third line, maybe, but they've been good for them. We've got to be better at taking advantage against them and scoring for us. It seems like we've got a lot of [offensive] zone time, but we just don't find a way to score … and that's what we've got to do."

The Red Wings' third-liners have the same exact approach -- only they're executing it. They're playing defense by trying to play offense, which is exactly what the Blackhawks got from their third unit almost all season.

"That's what you want to do," said Nyquist, who spent most of the regular season in Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League. "That's how you gain some momentum and energy for your team. We want to keep the puck as much as possible in their end, because all of their lines are pretty skilled."

The challenge for Chicago has become flipping that around, the way it was in almost all four meetings between the Original Six rivals in the regular season -- all won by the Blackhawks. Quenneville said the added speed Saad brings to the ice wasn't the reason he was matched with Shaw and Stalberg on the third line, but it might be one of the side benefits.

He also used that combination to start Game 4 in Detroit and they had some success controlling the action until the second period -- when the Blackhawks were called for five penalties and Quenneville shuffled the lines again.

The 6-foot-4, 233-pound Bickell brings some toughness and can skate pretty well for his size, but he's not as fast as Saad, who might be able to stay with Nyquist or Brunner better and chase down pucks quicker. The new third line should also be just as fast as Detroit's, considering Stalberg is one of the NHL's fastest skaters.

"I think both [of us] being fast players, it gives us a good look," Saad said. "Q's mixing things up … we haven't played much together, but both being able to use our speed game, I think that's what we need to do -- get pucks in and use our speed. They have some good players on that [third] line, and I think that's part of the reason we're giving it a shuffle here."

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