ANAHEIM, Calif. — Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville doesn’t like to reveal any more than he has to, but couldn’t play it coy any longer after practice Friday — he’ll stick with the “nuclear option” of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews on the top line in Game 7 against the Anaheim Ducks at the Honda Center.
“We’ll start them together and … see what happens,” Quenneville said. “In Game 5 later in the game they had some shifts together. I thought they were dangerous. I thought they were really good [in Game 6] as well.”
With the Hawks facing elimination in Game 6, Quenneville reunited Toews and Kane on a line with Brandon Saad on a more regular basis during a scoreless first period and it didn’t take long to get results. Saad scored off a pass from Kane to give the Hawks a 1-0 lead at the 8:23 mark of the second period. Kane scored to make it 3-0 less than four minutes later. Kane, Toews and Saad each were a plus-2 as the Hawks won 6-2 to force a decisive Game 7 on Saturday night.
“There’s no doubt we enjoy the opportunity to play together, having played together a lot throughout our career,” Toews said. “But I think we understand to a certain degree the lineup our coaching staff wants to give our team by keeping [us] separate.
“I think when he makes changes like that, that’s one change you resort to where it won’t take us long to get off on the right foot — to pick up wherever we left off, however long ago we might have been playing together.”
The short-term strategic value of the nuclear option is simple. “They’re two of the best players in the league,” goaltender Corey Crawford said. “Their chemistry is pretty good. They’re dangerous every time they get on the ice. I think it’s just another thing for the other team to think about.”
Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau is bracing for the challenge. But you can tell he’s hoping to avoid facing the Kane-Toews combination as much as possible.
“We expect them to do it again,” Boudreau said. “We get the last change, which is good — it means they have to change on the fly to get them.
“When that usually happens, faceoffs become very important. They’ve been great at home on faceoffs. We’ve been good at home in faceoffs. Whoever usually gets the puck has possession and it’s usually in their zone. Makes it difficult to change. Hopefully we can win a lot of faceoffs.”
The downside to the nuclear option is that it upsets the balance of the Hawks’ top three lines. With Kane up, Marian Hossa drops to the second line with Brad Richards and Bryan Bickell.
Some consider that a “patchwork” line. But as patchwork lines go in the playoffs, the Bickell-Richards-Hossa combination is hardly a bad option. Bickell brings a physical presence that usually pays dividends, and he has a history of scoring big goals in key playoff games; Richards is a former Conn Smythe winner (2004) who has assisted on both of Hossa’s goals against the Ducks; and Hossa is Marian Hossa.
The nuclear option doesn’t always work. Quenneville put Kane and Toews together in the conference final against the Kings last year after the Hawks lost Games 2 and 3— and the Hawks were miserable in a 5-2 loss that put them in a 3-1 hole. He never went back to it and the Hawks rallied to tie the series before losing Game 7 in overtime.
But the success of the nuclear option the previous year against the Kings and Bruins en route to the Stanley Cup bodes well. Quenneville reunited Kane and Toews in Game 4 against the Kings that year —when the Hawks were leading in the series 2-1 but trailing in the game 2-1, with Keith serving a suspension.
Kane scored on a tap-in on his second shift with Toews to tie the game and the Hawks won 3-2 to take a 3-1 series lead.
Quenneville stuck with the Kane-Toews-Bryan Bickell line in Game 5 at the United Center. Kane scored a hat trick, with Toews assisting twice as the Hawks won 4-3 to win the series, 4-1.
But Quenneville split up Kane and Toews for the Stanley Cup Final. Neither player scored a point in the first three games as the Hawks lost Games 2 and 3 to fall behind 2-1 in the series with a critical Game 4 at TD Garden.
That’s when Quenneville went back to the nuclear option for a critical Game 4. Toews and Kane each scored a goal and were a plus-2 as the Hawks — who had scored one goal in the previous two games — won 6-5 in overtime to tie the series.
Quenneville stuck with the Toews-Kane combo and the Hawks continued to roll. Kane had two goals and Toews two assists in a 3-1 victory in Game 5. Toews had a goal and an assist and both players were a plus-1 in Game 6 as the Hawks parlayed two goals in 17 seconds late in the third period to win 3-2 and clinch their second Stanley Cup.
So to recap the 2013 Nuclear Option Experience — in five games together against the Kings and Bruins, Toews and Kane combined for 15 points (nine goals, six assists) and were a combined plus-14. In three games apart, they score zero points (no goals, no assists) and were a minus-2.
Most hockey teams don’t concern themselves too much with the opponent, but the Ducks know the Kane-Toews pairing is something they’ll have to address and deal with.
“It brings a pretty unique challenge for us,” defenseman Cam Fowler said. “They both bring unique skill sets. When you put them together, it makes for a pretty good combination. They’re two great players, so you have to be aware when they’re out there.”