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Lightning strategy may force split of Toews-Kane line

by Arpon Basu / NHL.com

TAMPA -- Entering the Stanley Cup Final, Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were playing so well together, he saw no reason to split them up.

The Tampa Bay Lightning may have given him one.

The Blackhawks won Game 1 of the series on Wednesday 2-1, but the way the line of Toews, Kane and Brandon Saad was neutralized by the Lightning's top defensive pairing of Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman, as well as the surprise use of Cedric Paquette as a checking center with Ryan Callahan on his wing, might give Quenneville something to think about heading into Game 2 on Saturday (7:15 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).

Quenneville has used Toews and Kane on separate lines most of the season, with Marian Hossa playing with Toews and Kane lining up next to center Brad Richards. When that's the case, opposing teams are forced to pick their poison when deploying their best defensive players, particularly on the back end. When Toews and Kane are together, as they were in Game 1, that decision becomes much easier.

Early in the third period of Game 1, the Lightning iced the puck with defensemen Matt Carle and Andrej Sustr on the ice. Quenneville immediately sent out the Toews line and they proceeded to spend the entire shift in the offensive zone, something they had difficulty doing for much of the game.

That one shift was a good example of how effective Hedman and Stralman had been in containing the Blackhawks' high-powered top line.

"They're great skating [defensemen]," Toews said Thursday. "They're offensive. They're smart defensively. Hedman is a big guy, but he's mobile as well. I think we had some shifts where we had puck possession. We just got to find ways to get inside, get shots, just get traffic in front of the goaltender.

"We had some puck possession in some moments, but it didn't really amount to a whole lot the way we wanted it to. Coming off that third period [Wednesday] night, I think we'll be ready to jump in Saturday night and create and try and make some of their top players play in their own end."

Lightning coach Jon Cooper clearly wanted to get his top defensive pairing out against the Blackhawks big guns as often as possible. According to war-on-ice.com, Hedman was on the ice for 13:45 of Kane's 20:21 of 5-on-5 ice time, or 64.5 percent. For Stralman, the number was 58.7 percent. Hedman was on the ice for 11:18 of Toews' 17:37 of 5-on-5 ice time, or 64.1 percent, and Stralman was on for 67 percent of it.

The Lightning won the matchup in terms of possession, controlling a strong majority of the shot attempts when Hedman and Stralman were out against the Toews line.

Being on the road, Quenneville said it's going to be difficult to avoid that matchup if that's what Cooper wants to do, but he did hint he may revert back to splitting Toews and Kane for at least part of Game 2.

"A couple times I had [Kane] back with [Richards] and [Kris Versteeg]," he said. "[Versteeg] gives you that versatility as well. Hossa can go back with [Toews]. We'll see how that plays out. They'll still visit each other over the course of the game with some shifts."

Kane played 1:46 at 5-on-5 with Richards in Game 1, and Hossa played 1:37 with Toews. If the trend from Game 1 continues, Quenneville may be tempted to revert back to that more often in Game 2.

The fact Cooper wanted Hedman and Stralman to be out against the Toews line was no surprise. What was surprising was that he asked Paquette, a 21-year-old rookie, to match up against Toews in the middle, mostly for defensive-zone and neutral-zone faceoffs, and to start each period.

Paquette and Callahan had either Alex Killorn or J.T. Brown on left wing, depending on the situation, but that pair was given the job by Cooper to play the tough minutes against the Toews line and did the job, with some huge help from the defensive pair behind them.

Cooper explained his goal in using that forward matchup was to free his more offensive lines to create opportunities to score, so as long as Paquette and Callahan were able to come out even against Toews it would benefit the Lightning.

They did that, but the Lightning still lost. However, Toews recognized his line will need to take better advantage of not only that matchup, but any matchup to give the Blackhawks a chance of heading home up 2-0 in the series.

"He's a very good player for his age," Toews said of Paquette. "He skates very well, he has a lot of speed. Tampa has four lines that can play with speed and that can play with the puck. Their possession game is very, very strong. So for my line, it's not only a matter of playing well on offense, but also to play smart in our zone.

"No matter the line we find ourselves against, we have to play that way, smart."

Callahan said he had no idea prior to the game he and Paquette would be given the assignment of facing Toews so often, and it was something Cooper did intentionally to spare Paquette from overthinking his task leading up to the game.

"I don't want him thinking, 'Oh my gosh, I'm going to have to check Captain Everything,'" Cooper explained. "If he's been in the League a few years, it may be different. I might have a different approach if I'm talking to [Valtteri Filppula].

"For [Paquette], it's go out there and do your job. For me, the way it is with certain players, I didn't want him thinking about it. I want him to go out and play. He finds himself against No. 19, so be it. I thought he did a great job."

If Paquette continues doing such a great job Saturday, it may force Quenneville to make a decision on the makeup of his top two lines. Though Quenneville won't have to worry about it as much when the series shifts to Chicago for Game 3 on Monday, the matchup could become a determining factor in who ultimately wins the Stanley Cup.

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