Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville’s shifting of lines might have had an impact, whether physical or psychological. The Blackhawks might have simply been the better team and would have been just fine against the Blue Jackets, whom they have defeated 12 consecutive times, if they'd kept the same lines from their previous game. The Blackhawks might also have been playing with additional motivation coming off a disappointing defeat to the Colorado Avalanche and given their recent lack of production.
Whatever the reason, the Blackhawks needed a victory exactly like Thursday's. With 18 regular-season games to go and the Central Division race continuing to heat up, the Blackhawks got their heads straight while pouring in goals and cruising to a victory against Columbus.
“It’s good for us to get back on track,” Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. “That’s a hard-working, simple team that doesn’t give up much. We went out there, worked hard and skated and we wore them down. Eventually, we just got plenty of scoring chances.
“We know we don’t have too many games left this year and every point is important. But at the same time, we want to keep improving every period. I think we got a good bounce-back, I guess, from the softer effort against Colorado.”
Toews’ new-look top line factored into that bounce-back effort. Reuniting Toews with Brandon Saad after Marian Hossa's recent injury didn’t take much thought from Quenneville. But Quenneville was working on a hunch that Andrew Shaw would gel well with Toews and Saad. Shaw hadn’t played on the top line since his first career NHL game, in 2012.
Shaw made Quenneville look like a genius against the Blue Jackets. Shaw broke out of an 11-game goalless streak in a big way, scoring twice and earning a plus-3 rating on the night.
“It’s an opportunity,” Quenneville of mixing his lines. “When you got a guy out, you try things. You give the guy a chance. Saader looked immediately like he felt comfortable there. And then looking for a little balance with [Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane on the second line], Shawzy took advantage of the chance.”
Toews and Saad did their parts, too. Toews scored twice and had a plus-2 rating. He has notched five goals in his past three games. Saad had an assist and a plus-2 rating.
“Being back with Saader, I think it’s like old times,” Toews said. “We have a lot of experience playing together. I think we’re similar players. We both seem to be thinking the same thing when either guy has the puck and there’s an opportunity to go to the net or help either to find a way to create a scoring chance.
“I think we fit in well with Shawzy. He was working. Almost like [Hossa] the way he was working to recover the puck and he was throwing his body around. Nice to see him get a few, too.”
Saad had the prettiest moves of the night. In the second period, he received the puck at the top of the right circle and skated to his left, toward the middle of the ice. As the Blue Jackets’ James Wisniewski approached him, Saad brought the puck to his backhand and broke to his right to avoid Wisniewski. Saad encountered Columbus’ Nathan Horton a moment later and quickly cut to his left to leave Horton behind. Saad shot it, saw it blocked, retrieved the rebound and dished it to a wide-open Toews for a goal.
“I didn’t even realize how many times he kind of dangled it through,” Toews said. “I was just waiting for the puck to come to me at the goal line. Eventually it did, so great play by him.”
The victory meant that the Blackhawks did not lose any ground to the Avalanche and the St. Louis Blues. The Blues remained atop the division with a win Thursday and improved to 42-14-6 with 90 points. The Blackhawks stayed in second place and have 88 points with a 37-13-14 record. The Avalanche also won Thursday and are 41-17-5 with 87 points.
The Blackhawks are keeping tabs of everyone’s results each night, but Toews said the division race isn’t the only factor driving them the last month of the regular season.
“I think at the end of the day we’re motivated to build ourselves into the team we want to be come playoff time,” Toews said. “[The division race] adds to it in a way to keep us honest and make sure we’re competing the right way for these points every single night because we know it’s important. We’ll keep going forward with that attitude.”
Shaw left no doubt he was still out for first place.
“There’s some great teams in the Western Conference,” Shaw said. “Positioning is huge. You want the home-ice advantage. We have to go there and get it.”
Thursday’s win got the Blackhawks moving in the right direction again.