BOSTON — In a perfect world, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville would never play Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane on the same line. And for the better part of a decade, Quenneville lived in pretty much a perfect world.
Quenneville had the kind of depth at forward that allowed him to keep his two biggest stars separated, so he could dictate the matchups. If opposing coaches chose to deploy their shutdown line against Kane, then Toews — often playing with Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa — could run wild against easier competition. If they chose to focus on Toews, Kane got the easier matchup. Keeping them apart also allowed Quenne-ville to utilize Toews against the other team’s top scoring line.
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“We feel we’re a deeper team and more dangerous across the board when they’re on separate lines,” Quenneville said.
But Quenneville no longer has a perfect roster, and it is no longer a perfect world. So for the last four games, he has gone to the latest version of his nuclear option — a top line of Brandon Saad, Toews and Kane.
“We haven’t played much together the last four or five years,” Kane said. “Anytime we’re put together, we try to rely on what [we] did [together] the first couple seasons. It always takes a game or two, or maybe a couple shifts.”
The results have been mixed so far. Against the Kings, Toews and Kane each had a goal and two assists. They had another strong game in a 2-1 victory over the Avalanche — particularly Saad — and Kane connected with Toews for the overtime winner. But in a 3-2 loss to the Hurricanes on Thursday, Saad, Toews and Kane each had one measly shot on goal, each coming late in the game.
Super lines don’t always have super results.
“When you put good players on the ice together, you sometimes tend to defer a little bit and watch the other person,” Kane said. “But with us, we want to make sure we’re both being active and both trying to still play our own game and still control the game ourselves.”
Super lines have been en vogue again this season. Tampa Bay has used Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov together, while Dallas frequently loads up with Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alex Radulov. Winnipeg has used Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Patrik Laine together off and on, and Nashville relies heavily on Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson.
The Penguins still follow the Quenneville model, with Sidney Crosby on the top line, Evgeni Malkin on the second and Phil Kessel on the third. But Pittsburgh’s forward depth is extraordinary and a big reason they’re the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions.
“Seems like [every game], someone has one line that’s been very hot,” Quenneville said. “It’s been noticeable that there are a lot of teams that have one line that’s prevalent in doing a majority of the scoring.”
By loading up the top line, the Hawks might have discovered another one. The kid line of Alex DeBrincat (20), Nick Schmaltz (22) and Vinnie Hinostroza (23) has used its speed to generate sustained offense off and on in the last four games. Kane recently pointed to the speedy Schmaltz as a guy he could potentially make magic with in the long term, but the current top six is as dangerous as the Hawks have had all season.
“That line … has been playing really well,” Kane said. “So maybe it opens up even more depth. When we’re on the ice, maybe [opponents are] worried about us a little more and maybe take their foot off the gas a little bit when other lines are on the ice. That’s always something Joel thought about, having that depth and balance scoring.”
That used to mean keeping Toews and Kane apart. But in a season that has turned the Hawks upside down, the dynamic duo together could become the new normal.
“That group can lead the charge in a lot of ways,” Quenneville said. “Plus, I think they like playing together.”
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