You know the Hawks are on the brink when they play their two superstars on the same line. But, hey, it has worked wonders in the past.
The Chicago Blackhawks are one seriously wounded animal right now, trailing their Central Division semifinal to the St. Louis Blues 3-1 and venturing to enemy territory facing elimination after dropping consecutive games at the United Center. Not the result we’re accustomed to from the Madhouse on Madison, especially against a Blues team known for choking in its current era of regular season dominance.
Andrew Shaw will not play tonight in Game 5, justifiably suspended for his homophobic slur in Game 4, creating a hole in coach Joel Quenneville’s lineup. Shaw, a versatile agitating forward who can play center or the wing, the first line or the fourth, has been as effective as any Chicago player in the series so far. His four points in four games tie Duncan Keith for the team lead. Shaw is also one of only three Hawks forwards – three! – with a goal in the series. So his presence will be missed.
Quenneville is painted into a corner right now, and he’s decided to declare a Code Red: he’s busting out the big guns and reuniting superstars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane to form a superline. The Game 5 line deployment, as posted by crackerjack beat reporter Mark Lazerus:
— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) April 21, 2016
Placing one’s best eggs in the same basket has its shortcomings, sure, as that basket pretty much has to succeed for the team to win, but it offers massive upside for a Chicago team desperately seeking a spark.
Puckalytics.com has an extremely handy tool called WOWY, which stands for “with or without you.” It tells us players’ possession numbers on the ice together and apart. This season 5-on-5, Kane played 1,147 minutes and 50 seconds without Toews, posting a 55.51 Corsi For per 60, a 52.85 Corsi Against per 60, and an overall Corsi percentage of 51.2. Toews on his own: 56.10, 55.30, 50.4 in 978 minutes and 41 seconds. The two of them played 158 minutes and 41 seconds together at even strength and produced a stellar line of 65.41, 52.18 and 55.6. Most notable is the Corsi For of 65.41 per 60 minutes. That’s beyond elite. That’s top-of-the-league material. It tells us Kane and Toews together do precisely what they should do: absolutely dominate and pepper the opposing goal with shot attempts. They don’t merely pass an eye test. The advanced numbers tell us they really do rule the roost as a tandem.
And if you don’t subscribe to the gosh darn fancy number crap, the meat-and-potatoes numbers tell us Kane and Toews flourish together, too. Quenneville turned to them late in the 2015 Western Conference final against Anaheim, and it was a huge difference maker in the Hawks winning Game 6 and 7, as Yahoo’s Josh Cooper reported last spring.
It might be tempting to say, “Well, duh, two superstars play great together.” That would be a lazy generalization, however. Not all star tandems have good chemistry. Phil Kessel has played his best hockey of the year without Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin on his line in Pittsburgh, remember.
Playing Kane and Toews together may not be a long-term solution, and Quenneville knows that. He kept the pair intact to start last season’s Stanley Cup final and split them up when he realized he didn’t want both deployed against the shutdown defensive pair of Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman. But for a team needing a jolt, few have a better “nuclear option” Chicago with a temporary Kane and Toews reunion. If that of all things can’t save the Hawks, they truly aren’t meant to advance past Round 1 this year.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin