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Ode to the Joel Quenneville Era: A Blackhawks run we’ll never quite see again

The Joel Quenneville Era ended long before the former Blackhawks coach officially severed his ties to Chicago when he was hired as head coach of the Florida Panthers last week.

In fact, it probably ended long before his firing 15 games into the 2018-19 season. In reality, the Q-era was over when the Hawks were surprisingly swept by the Nashville Predators in a first-round playoff series in 2017 — a postseason failure unlike any other during Quenneville’s tenure as head coach. A Hawks team with the best record in the Western Conference in the regular season suddenly lost both its fastball and its trademark resilience in the span of eight days.

With Quenneville sitting out the remainder of the 2018-19 season, he never returned to the United Center with another team. And with the Hawks adjusting to Jeremy Colliton on the fly, there never was a chance to step back and appreciate what a special — and unique — era it was.

But special — and unique — it was. The Hawks likely will become Stanley Cup contenders again. And they might win another Cup — perhaps even in the Jonathan Toews-Patrick Kane era. Some day they might even win three Cups in six seasons. But replicating what the Hawks and Joel Quenneville had in their glory years will be extremely difficult. It was a unique team in a unique time.

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville (left) celebrates with forward Patrick Kane after Kane's overtime goal in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010 clinched the Hawks' first Stanley Cup since 1961. clinched the Hawks' first Stanley Cup since 1961. The Hawks also won the Cup in 2013 and 2015 under Quenneville. | Matt Slocum/AP photo

Those Quenneville teams were vulnerable, resilient and dominant all within the same postseason — sometimes within the same series. They were loaded with a mental toughness and leadership that was unusual even by championship-team standards. Jonathan Toews is considered one of the great captains of his era — with maturity, steadiness and a resolute drive that seemed to will a team through difficult moments to victory. But when he had his weak moment — taking three penalties in a 5:34 span in Game 4 of a frustrating second-round series against the Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena in 2013 — Brent Seabrook was there to get his captain’s head back in the game.

Despite losing that Game 4 to fall into a 3-1 series hole, both Toews and the Hawks recovered to win the series and eventually their second Stanley Cup. That’s the kind of leadership the Q-era Hawks had. Seabrook wasn’t even an alternate captain on those teams (Duncan Keith and Patrick Sharp wore the “A”), but behind the scenes he stood with Toews as the backbone of them.

That the 2012-13 Hawks were one of the best teams in NHL history (36-7-5 in the lockout-shortened regular season), yet were down 3-1 and on the ropes in Games 6 and 7 is the Q-era Hawks in a nutshell. Dominant. Vulnerable. And uncanny in eventually clinching the Cup with two goals in 17 seconds in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Bruins.

But that team was far from alone in that regard. The 2010 team that won the Hawks’ first Stanley Cup in 49 years was seconds from going down 3-2 in the first round against the Predators — and facing an elimination game on the road — before rallying to tie on Patrick Kane’s goal with 14 seconds left in regulation, then winning on Marian Hossa’s goal in overtime.

That team had a roster that is unlikely to be duplicated with the salary-cap era in full swing — a world-class core with Toews, Kane, Keith, Hossa, Sharp and Seabrook, plus a high-caliber supporting cast that included Dustin Byfuglien, Brian Campbell, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Andrew Ladd, Troy Brouwer, Dave Bolland and a healthy Kris Versteeg. That team had not only depth, but versatility — scorers who could grind and grinders who could score. Most championship teams have that quality, but not like that Hawks team did.

And the 2015 Cup-winning team, which seems destined to be relegated to the shadows of the 2010 and 2013 champions, still very much exemplified what the Q-era was all about: Scott Darling’s heroic, 42-save effort in the double-overtime victory over the Predators in the postseason opener at Bridgestone Arena; the second-round sweep of the Wild when the Hawks never trailed; Keith’s yeoman effort en route to the Conn Smythe Trophy; overcoming series deficits in the Western Conference Final against the Ducks (2-1 and 3-2) and in the Stanley Cup Final against the Lightning (2-1); and of course, the almost requisite uncanny moment — Lightning goalie Ben Bishop colliding with defenseman Victor Hedman in Game 5 of the Cup Final at Amalie Arena in Tampa, leading to Sharp’s empty-net goal for a 1-0 lead on the road in a 2-2 series. (And let the record show that it was Sharp’s hustle that led to that Bishop-Hedman collision. It was yet another testament to the Hawks’ versatility — one of their fastest skaters and their best sniper did a lot of the little things.)

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From the uncanniness of Jonathan Toews to the unsung heroics of Dave Bolland, Bryan Bickell, Michael Frolik, Andrew Shaw, Michal Handzus, Marcus Kruger and Antoine Vermette to Corey Crawford playing a starring role after being benched in 2015, the Quenneville-era Blackhawks had a knack for coming through when it mattered most. That championship quality was best illustrated in the Q-era trends that separated the Hawks not only from the rest of the league, but other recent Stanley Cup champions:

— Though the Hawks were notorious slow starters in many playoff series, they were incredible closers. They were 44-44 (.500) in Games 1-4 of a playoff series under Quenneville, but 32-8 (.800) in Games 5-7. That’s well ahead of the Kings (15-10), Capitals (26-19) and Penguins (28-25) in Games 5-7 in the salary-cap era.

The Hawks, in fact, were 15-4 in Game 5 and an incredible 15-1 in Game 6 under Quenneville, a big reason why they were unbeatable when a series was tied 2-2 — going 18-1 to win all nine times a series was tied after Game 4. (The only loss was  to the Ducks at Honda Center in Game 5 in the 2015 Western Conference Final — the Hawks responded by winning Games 6 and 7 to win the series).

Other championship-caliber teams could step on the gas, but not quite like the Hawks. In 2-2 playoff series in the cap era, the Penguins are 7-2/15-8; the Capitals 6-3/16-8; the Kings 3-1/6-4; the Bruins 4-4/8-9.

— The Q-era Hawks had a penchant for playing with fire, but knew how to put the hammer down. They were 14-5 in series clinchers, ahead of the Penguins (20-19), Kings (10-8) and Capitals (10-16) in the salary-cap era. They never lost a 3-2 series lead (something only the Kings can say, among the top Cup contenders in the cap era). And the Hawks avoided unnecessary Game 7s — they were 9-0 in Game 6 clinchers (including 6-0 on the road). Among the other Cup winners in the salary-cap era, only the Penguins (8-6) are even over .500 in Game 6 clinchers.

— The resilience of the Q-era Hawks was never more apparent than in playoff marathons. The Hawks were 8-1 (.889) in multiple-overtime games, winning triple-overtime thrillers against the Bruins in the 2013 Cup Final (on Shaw’s goal), the Predators in the first round in 2015 (Seabrook) and the Ducks in the 2015 Western Conference Final (Kruger).

For the rest of the league, those marathons have been a true coin flip. Among regular Cup contenders in the cap era, only the Bruins (4-3) are over .500 in multiple-overtime games. The Penguins are 2-4; the Kings 2-2; the Capitals 2-2; the Rangers 1-4.  

— The Hawks also had a history of picking up steam as the playoffs progressed. In fact, since 2010, the Hawks were 4-4 in first-round playoff series, but 10-1 after the first round.

So it’s not too far-fetched to surmise that if the Hawks had just gotten out of the first round, they would have been a threat to win the Cup — most notably in 2011 (a seven-game loss to the top-seeded Canucks) and 2016 (a seven-game loss to the Blues) and maybe even 2017 when they were swept by the Predators in what turned out to be a particularly bad matchup.

— The Q-era Hawks were the toughest out in the playoffs. They’re a league-best 13-6 in elimination games in the cap era — ahead of the Kings (9-5), Capitals (14-9), Penguins (10-9) and Bruins (12-8). Until crapping out against the Predators in 2017, they didn’t go down easily — rallying from a 3-0 deficit to force Game 7 against the Canucks in 2011; from 3-1 down to force Game 7 against the Kings in the 2014 Western Conference Final; and from a 3-1 deficit to force Game 7 against the Blues in 2016.

When the Hawks were in the midst of arguably the best comeback of all — from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Red Wings in the second round in 2013 — Wings defenseman Brendan Smith captured the essence of their excellence best:

”When their backs are against the wall, they push even harder. It’s pretty impressive to see that,” Smith said after the Hawks won Games 5 and 6. ”A lot of those skill guys actually got a little chippy and try to work a little bit harder and fought battles a little bit more. It’s impressive to see the competition-level bump up that much more.

”Some of these guys that [people] say aren’t competitive and their give-a-[bleep] meter is really low, you see them come out and they play really tough. I don’t think I’ve seen guys like Kane and Sharp play as hard as I have other than this series. It’s pretty cool to see and cool to see their game evolve like that.”

All in all, while three Cups will be the legacy of the Quenneville era, it’s that resilience that will be the hallmark of those championship teams.

“I think there’s just a feeling back then that we were never out of a game,” Sharp said after the 2018 season ended. “Whatever the situation was, whatever the score was … we won a lot of games [when] we didn’t play our best, just because we felt we could win it and somebody stepped up and won it for us. I guess that’s the feeling you have when you’re on a championship team. And hopefully we can get back to that level in Chicago.”