Hawks not panicking, but Joel Quenneville is already tinkering

In the middle of practice Friday at the United Center, Jonathan Toews stickhandled a couple of times, shimmied his way past an imaginary defender, roofed a shot over an imaginary goaltender, then celebrated the imaginary feat — pirouetting with his stick raised high above his head.

So no, a 1-0 series deficit isn’t going to rattle the Blackhawks.

“We’ve been in every spot — good spots, tough spots, awful spots,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “Losing the first game is not what we’re looking for. Home ice is something that’s special. But we find we’re consistent in how we play, and we feel we get better as series go on.”

The Hawks aren’t panicking over the 1-0 loss to the Nashville Predators in Game 1 on Thursday. They did enough good things against the trapping Predators and have surmounted enough obstacles over the past eight seasons to know better.

Joel Quenneville said the Blackhawks might have to dump-and-chase more to get past the Predators defense. (AP Photo)

But look beyond the intangibles and the history, and there are clear signs that betray a certain unease about their current situation.

The mere fact that the Hawks practiced Friday is noteworthy. It’s only the second mid-series practice Quenneville has held since the start of the 2014 postseason, spanning nine series. Quenneville was unhappy enough with his team’s lack of net-front presence in what the Hawks dismissively regarded as an “easy” shutout for Pekka Rinne that he held an extremely rare on-ice workout focusing largely on tips and deflections.

Then there’s the knee-jerk benching, and demotion, of rookie Nick Schmaltz after just one shaky period in Game 1. Schmaltz, whose arrival on the top line helped trigger the Hawks’ best stretch of the season in February, will start Game 2
on the third line, with Ryan Hartman alongside Toews and Richard Panik. Schmaltz admitted he was skittish with the puck in the first period, and he was part of a disastrous shift that led to the Predators’ only goal. And it appeared to undo two solid months of play on the top line.

Schmaltz admitted he was “a little bit” disappointed to lose his spot so quickly, but said he was happy to skate alongside Marcus Kruger and Marian Hossa, instead.

“I thought I was OK,” Schmaltz said. “I thought I could have held on to the puck a little bit more. I don’t know if I was nervous or what I was, but I just felt like I was just getting rid of the puck when I had it. That’s not what I’m accustomed to, so hopefully I can learn from that and bounce back.”

Schmaltz was noticeably better later in the game, but the patience Quenneville afforded rookies all season? It doesn’t exist in the playoffs.

“Q likes to change the lines,” Panik said with a shrug. ‘‘I played with [Hartman] and [Toews] during the season. We should get used to each other on the first shifts, and from there I think we’ll be fine.”

Quenneville also showed little faith in his fourth line, a staple of the Hawks’ three recent Stanley-Cup winning teams. John Hayden played just 5:39, and will be replaced by Dennis Rasmussen in Game 2. Jordin Tootoo played just 5:29, with Patrick Kane double-shifting regularly with Tanner Kero.

Taken individually, the rare practice, the immediate tinkering of lines that had been largely set for more than two months, the overuse of the top-nine forwards, even Quenneville’s admission that the Hawks, who love to carry the puck into the offensive zone with speed, will have to resort to dumping-and-chasing to get through the Predators’ 1-4 and 1-3-1 neutral-zone traps are minor developments.

But taken together, after only one game, it’s a clear sign of just how seriously the Hawks took that Game 1 loss, and just how difficult a series they know they’re in for.

“We all got a taste of playoff hockey [Thursday] night,” Quenne-ville said. “Now we’ve got to do something about it.”

Follow me on Twitter
@MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

RELATED STORIES

Net-front traffic key for Hawks.

Hawks have been here before.


Stories from around the web you may like