Victory seemed to be slipping away for the Chicago Blackhawks after emerging with a 4-1 third period lead against the New Jersey Devils. The Devils had all the momentum and had cut the lead to 4-3 thanks to a power play strike by Marek Zidlicky, his second of the night.
Then, Patrick Sharp quickly retaliated, sneaking behind the defense for a breakaway tally, which was his third goal of the night. It also marked his second hat trick in two weeks. Sharp, along with Captain Jonathan Toews, were +4 tonight, sealing victory for the Blackhawks yet again.
However, as Coach Joel Quenneville proved tonight, the second and third lines are not producing like they were earlier in the season, meaning line shuffling is once again necessary despite the Blackhawks still leading the NHL in scoring.
The major change that Coach Quennevile made was the swapping of Brandon Saad and Kris Versteeg, moving Saad up into the top six. The move played immediate dividends when Patrick Kane was able to find some space and bounce the puck off a skate. Officials credited Saad with the goal.
Whether or not he was credited, the spacing Saad and Kane can create with Michal Handzus planted in front of the net can become lethal. Handzus remaining in the top six obviously isn’t keeping Kane off the score sheet (he has also improved his +/- dramatically), but their chemistry and spacing on ice could use some work.
Both players were seen being on different pages while Kane brought the puck up. That being said, Saad’s impact should speed up the line and alleviate any issues with spacing, benefitting the top six immensely.
Yet, the same optimism cannot be shared for the teams third line, which now appears to not only be its weakest matchup-wise, but the one which the coaching staff has the least amount of confidence in. Bryan Bickell continues to be absolutely lost since returning from injury, and center Andrew Shaw led all third line forwards with only 10:17 of ice time. Kris Versteeg is excellent with the puck on his stick, and going into tonight, has had four points in his last five games. However, he cannot do it all, and offers less explosiveness within the top six compared to Brandon Saad.
The Blackhawks will need to right the ship quickly, as the team will have its hands full Sunday night against the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks have just as much talent and depth as the Blackhawks, and a third line led by Bracken Kearns that was the center of their 5-1 dismantling of the Edmonton Oilers Thursday night.
Follow Mike Guzman on Twitter @Mike486