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Quenneville's line changes pay off for Blackhawks

by Arpon Basu / NHL.com

CHICAGO -- The line shuffle is often seen as a hockey coach's first resort, an attempt to swing momentum or switch unfavorable matchups or get slumping offensive stars going.

For most coaches, however, their options with their forwards are often limited because of defined roles for certain players or lines that are clicking well and should remain intact.

Luckily for the Chicago Blackhawks, coach Joel Quenneville has no such limitations.

With a forward group that is among the most talented in the NHL, Quenneville can create a diverse combination of lines that can severely change the look of his team.

He did exactly that in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday and it worked, with two of his new line combinations scoring the goals in a 2-1 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning at United Center, tying the best-of-7 series 2-2 as it shifts to Tampa for Game 5 on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).

A new top line of Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa scored the game's first goal at 6:40 of the second period, with Toews scoring his first of the series, and a new second line of Brad Richards, Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad scored the winning goal at 6:22 of the third period.

The change was subtle, replacing Saad with Sharp on the top line and Kris Versteeg with Saad on the second line, but it was made possible because of Sharp's skill and experience previously playing on the third line.

"We've got a lot of guys that are top end guys and we don't just look for one or two guys; I think they get some help along the way," Quenneville said. "When you make lines, there's a lot more options out there. Sometimes you look for balance, sometimes you look for matchups.

"At the end of the day, I think getting the other team more concerned with different guys makes us a deeper team. That's why we say it a lot that I don't care who scores goals. Some nights it's the least expected guys, but generally the charge is led by our top guys."

Kane said some of the players were told Tuesday that changes were coming; others found out earlier Wednesday. Quenneville used his old lines at the morning skate and in the warmup before unveiling the new combinations during the game.

Considering the Lightning surprised many when they started backup Andrei Vasilevskiy goaltender and scratched Ben Bishop, who has an unspecified injury, Quenneville figured it was a fair trade.

"Well, we were expecting [Bishop] in the net," he said when asked to explain the gamesmanship, "so I guess it's 50-50."

Quenneville's new lines did not work at first.

The Blackhawks managed two shots on goal in the opening 20 minutes, a period where the teams combined to take five minor penalties, making it more difficult to keep forward combinations together.

"I don't know what happened in the first," Richards said. "Maybe that was it. I don't know. For whatever reason, we were just stuck in mud again. But [goalie Corey Crawford] came up with an unbelievable game and gave us a chance to win."

Quenneville shuffled his lines again in the second period, splitting Saad and Toews, a combination that had been together practically all season and throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

In the regular season, Saad spent a little more than 100 of his 1,089 5-on-5 minutes playing with Richards, according to hockeyanalysis.com, and even fewer playing with Kane, who was injured for the final 21 games of the regular season.

Neither Kane nor Richards had been on the ice for a Blackhawks 5-on-5 goal through the first three games and two periods of the Final.

But once Saad joined them on Wednesday, something clicked. It didn't matter that they had hardly played together all season, or that Kane and Richards were in a slump. That combination put together by Quenneville found something at just the right moment.

The result was the winning goal, depriving the Lightning of an opportunity to win the Stanley Cup at home on Saturday and ensuring the Blackhawks will play at least one more game at United Center this season.

When Richards was asked to evaluate Quenneville's new lines, his initial response was straight to the point.

"Well," he said, "our line scored a goal to win the game."

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