CHICAGO -- Of all the things Chicago Blackhawks players like about their coach, who just won his 600th game, the thing they like the most about Joel Quenneville might be this: He gives them more days off than any coach in the league.
The Hawks took the day off on Monday after winning their season-high fifth consecutive game Sunday night, 4-2, over the Calgary Flames. And why not? The Hawks are rolling and every ounce of energy they save now will help them come spring. A lot of coaches don't look at it that way.
A 9-2 defeat in Edmonton might have canceled a trip to Las Vegas. Not for Quenneville. A listless 4-1 loss to Phoenix in the first game back from the "Circus Trip" warranted nothing but a day of rest following it. Even with a four-day break for the Christmas holiday looming, the Hawks got Monday off before back-to-back contests.
How have the Hawks responded to these non-punishments? They've vaulted to the top of the league and show no signs of slowing down, though rough patches will come again. They always do.
A good coach knows his team above all else. Quenneville knows -- as we all do -- he has a good one. Pushing panic buttons and straying from the course in November can only do more harm than good. Next time you question his methods remember this stretch of games from November into December. Poor play warranted nothing but buckling down and getting needed rest. After a busy second month the Hawks did that -- thanks to Quenneville -- and now are reaping the rewards.
Second Line Streaking
It might be a coincidence but the Hawks have taken off -- as have Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp -- since Marcus Kruger was inserted as the second line center. Sharp was quick to point out recently that though Kruger isn't getting the points he's doing everything right. It gives hope for the postseason if the Hawks don't pick up another center. Patrick Kane showed some promise there and now Kruger is doing the same. Quenneville loves having options and general manager Stan Bowman has tried to accommodate him, picking up players who can play all three forward positions.
Kruger isn't ready for a postseason run there just yet but he's been a sponge, learning from some of the top players in the league. An unthinkable idea just a month or so ago, the thought of Kruger centering the second line for a successful playoff run isn't an impossibility anymore. We'll continue to learn about him with more road games, tougher matchups and a heavier workload going forward.
There is little more we need to learn about Sharp. Without training camp and with his first baby born, Sharp has been a production machine through it all. Only recently did he admit missing camp hurt his game, yet he's right there among the team and league leaders in points and plus/minus. His nine-game point streak is a season high in the NHL and a personal best. If production and leadership are elements for the Hart Trophy, why can't Sharp get as much consideration as Toews? He might not be playing center but he's having just as good a season on the wing.
It's evident the Hawks have tried to keep two of their four offensive stars together instead of loading three on one line, and it has worked. All four -- Sharp, Kane, Hossa and Jonathan Toews -- have taken turns at carrying the team. Right now, it's Sharp and Hossa who are taking care of business, but Kane and Toews are always lurking, picking up points though maybe not in a starring role as of late. It should be an interesting points race to lead the team. All four could break the 80-point barrier, health permitting.
No opponent can account for third- and fourth-line scoring when they have to tackle the likes of the Hawks' top two lines. It's why the past couple of victories have come easier than the previous few. It can't be overstated how big it is when the fourth line opens the scoring, as it did in wins over Anaheim and Calgary this past weekend. It's a demoralizing thought for any team: Kane, Toews, Sharp and Hossa are on the bench -- let alone Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook -- and still the Hawks score first.
If there is any reminder of the Hawks of 2009-10, it's when this season's team gets balanced scoring. There was many a night for that championship squad when upward of 12-15 players earned at least a point and some nights when nearly every forward was in on the action, let alone a very active defense.
Though he can never admit it, and it's still a long ways off, Quenneville is always looking toward the spring. Trying players in different positions, testing them with different assignments, all with one idea in mind: a Stanley Cup. If the Hawks acquire the No. 1 seed along the way, all the better, but finding out what players can do in different situations is as important as anything. Right now Jamal Mayers, John Scott and the rest of the secondary players are making their case for ice time and for more responsibility come spring.
The Hawks no longer have to worry about a fast start. They've accomplished that. Now it's on to bigger and more important things.