Joel Quenneville’s penchant for standing by “dependable” 30-and-over veterans will be tested like never before in his seven-year tenure as the Blackhawks’ coach this postseason.
Those veterans are a bigger part of the Hawks’ fortunes in this year’s playoff, many of them showing their age in varying degrees during the regular season — from charter-members-of-the-core Marian Hossa (36) and Patrick Sharp (33) to 2013 Cup veterans Michael Rozsival (36) and Johnny Oduya (33) to newcomers Brad Richards (34) and Kimmo Timonen (40).
Just two years ago, when the Hawks won their second Cup under Quenneville in 2013, the Hawks (26.8 average age) were in a virtual tie with the Kings (26.5) and Blues (26.7) as the youngest teams in the Western Conference playoffs. This season the Hawks (28.7) clearly are the oldest — nearly a year per man older than the next-oldest team, the St. Louis Blues (27.8).
Timonen has looked his age after missing most of the season with blood clots. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking to suggest his experience — he’s played in 87 career postseason games, including the Flyers’ run to the Final against the Hawks in 2010 — could make him a bigger factor in a playoff situation.
“I hope so,” Timonen said. “I won’t be nervous — that’s one thing. I’ve been there a few times. I do whatever it takes. It doesn’t matter if it’s six minutes, 20 minutes. I’m just happy to be part of this team and help in any way.”
Richards was a Conn Smythe Award winner at 23 with the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in 2003 and has played in 118 playoff games — including trips to the Stanley Cup Final with the Lightning (2003) and Rangers (2014), plus two other trips to the conference final.
He’s shown flashes of his former speed and a youthful verve, like when he faced his former Rangers teammates at Madison Square Garden on March 18 and scored the only goal in a 1-0 Hawks victory. But that was one of a career-low (for a full season) 12 goals Richards scored this season. Again, his experience and leadership might come in handy in the playoffs.
“I’ve had a lot of good memories in playoffs and a lot of good runs,” Richards said. “[Winning the] Conn Smythe] is obviously something to draw on. But I think the older you get, you learn how to handle those ups and downs. Losing a game is not the end of the world, just as winning a game doesn’t mean anything either.
“When you’re younger … you tend to ride those roller coasters a little bit higher and a lot lower. As you get older, you learn to just get the next night’s sleep, get a good meal and start over. That’s [easier] said than done. That’s human nature. But the good thing is when you go through it, I think you learn to handle those things a lot better.”
The Hawks once had a combination of speed, depth and versatility that was unmatched in the NHL. More and more they’re the team trying to keep up. The first-round matchup with the Predators is typical. “We’re going to have to play with a lot of speed,” Richards said. “They’re probably one of the fastest teams, the way they move the puck and move as a unit.”
Keeping up with the opponent used to be child’s play for the Hawks. Now it’s a challenge. Timonen, chasing a Stanley Cup for the final time at 40, is expected to start on the third defensive pairing with Roszival in Game 1 against the Predators. If they’re together in Game 2, it will be a good sign. If not …
2. On offense, Hossa (22 goals in 82 games) and Sharp (16 goals in 68 games) will be under the microscope after posting career-low shooting percentages for a full season. Quenneville argued that shooting percentages are down league-wide (in fact, 36 of the top 50 scorers from 2013-14 have lower shooting percentages this season). But Hossa and Sharp have particularly precipitous drops from last season — Hossa from 12.4 to 8.9; Sharp from 10.9 to 7.0.
Both are coming off subpar playoffs in 2014. Sharp had five goals and 10 points in 19 games, but was a minus-5 against the Kings in the conference final. Hossa had two goals and 14 points in 19 games. But he disappeared in the final six games against the Kings — no goals, one assist and a minus-5.
3. Quenneville already is thinking of Plan B on defense. Asked about depth behind Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Oduya, Quenneville quickly mentioned Kyle Cumiskey, who spent of most of the season at Rockford.
“He’s another guy that can play,” Quenneville said. “Like his speed. He couldn’t come up at the end with the [salary cap] restrictions.”
Regardless, it will be a challenge for the Hawks to find two “dependable” defenseman behind their top four.
“We had nine defense [men] out there [Monday],” Quenneville said. “We’ve got a lot of options. Performance will dictate how that plays out. But certainly it gives us a lot of options and depth and some things to think about.”
4. Quenneville came to his defensemen’s defense when asked if his defensive-line depth was good enough in the regular season to also win in the playoffs.
“I think we led the league in goals-against [they did, tying the Canadiens with 189 goal allowed],” Quenneville said, “so I’d say that’s a compliment to not only our goaltenders, but the defense and the whole team defense in front of them.
“So I think defensively, if we’re responsible as a group of five, we’re effective in that area. We feel that’s a very important asset to have — knowing that in the playoffs, defense really when you get down to it, wins a majority of the time. And off that you get offense from it. Primarily our concern now is how well we check and how we play without the puck.”
4a. While the Hawks indeed tied the Canadiens for the fewest goals allowed, they also were 22nd in shots allowed (30.2) — a startling drop from fourth place in that category in 2013-14 (27.2) and 2012-13 (26.2).
5. On paper, the Hawks’ experience as a team that knows how to win playoff series might be their biggest advantage. Of the seven other playoff teams in the Western Conference, only Vancouver has even reached the conference final in the last eight seasons — and the Canucks haven’t won a playoff series in the last three years.
The Blues have won one playoff series in the last 12 seasons. The Predators have won two in their 15-year history. The Ducks, chronic postseason underachievers, have won one playoff series in the last five years.
In fact, in the previous six seasons the other seven playoff teams in the Western Conference have combined for 10 playoff-series victories. The Hawks have 12 by themselves.
6. With the demise of the Bruins and the Sharks — both of whom failed to make the playoffs — the Hawks are one of three NHL teams that have made the playoffs the last seven seasons. The others are the Red Wings (24 in a row) and the Penguins (nine).
7. How fine is the line between success and failure in today’s NHL? In 2011-12, the Kings finished 40-27-15 (95 points) and won the Stanley Cup. In 2014-15, the Kings finished 40-27-15 (95 points) and failed to make the playoffs.
The Kings are yet another team to struggle the year after winning the Cup in the salary-cap era. Only the Red Wings (2007-09) have reached the Cup Final the following season. The Blackhawks (2012-14) are the only other team to even reach the conference final in a non-lockout season.
8. The Blackhawks are undaunted by the prospect of having to win on the road to beat the Predators (or the Blues or Ducks for that matter). The Hawks have won at least one road game in each of their last 15 playoff series. Only the Bruins (17 straight) have a longer streak.
The Hawks were 16-12 on the road in the playoffs from 2010-13. Last year they were 3-6 — losing the first two road games against the Blues, Wild and Kings before winning the third.
9. A year ago the Hawks were running on empty at the end of the playoffs — mentally as well as physically — after an arduous season following a short summer after winning the Cup, plus having 10 players in the Olympic Games. They lost a two-goal lead five times in the postseason, including three times in the conference final against the Kings.
This year they will be relatively fresher but a year older, and the challenge is similar — rising to the occasion efficiently and productively so their experience as postseason winners makes a difference. It’s now their strongest suit.
“This is what we’re wired for — trying to be a champion at the end,” Quenneville said. “We have a lot of guys that have some great experiences here. We’ll definitely talk about the opportunity here being special and let’s everybody make a contribution to do everything we can to find a way to get it done.”
10. First-round picks to click: In the West, Blackhawks over Predators in 6; Blues over Wild in 7; Ducks over Jets in 5; Flames over Canucks in 6.
In the East, Canadiens over Senators in 5; Red Wings over Lightning in 7; Rangers over Penguins in 6; Capitals over Islanders in 6.