Sunday night’s matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks was a possible Western Conference Championship preview, with both teams playing a wide-open style that only saw one penalty and a combined 77 shots. San Jose ended the night with 42 shots on Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford and two points in the standings.
Despite putting 35 shots on Alex Stalock as a team, the Blackhawks forwards scored no goals. The team struggled once again to find a balance outside of its top two lines, and that could lead to even more line-shuffling going forward.
Coach Joel Quenneville still wants to use his third line as a scoring line, and have a flexible defensive fourth line. However, due to weak performances of late by third-line winger Bryan Bickell and fourth-line winger Brandon Bollig, the stability that the Blackhawks strive for may be missing.
Bickell has to be fully in the coaching staff’s doghouse. He signed a four-year contract worth $16 million this offseason and began the year on the team’s top line. However, Bickell looked lost almost immediately. His spacing threw off the chemistry of whatever line he was on, and he has recently forgotten the style of play that rewarded him with such a large payday.
Thanks to his contract, Bickell is unmovable, for assignment or otherwise. And thanks to a knee brace, his return to playoff form will be delayed if it is to ever be found again.
Bollig is in a similar doghouse, although his ceiling is lower than Bickell’s and the team demands less out of his fourth-line role. Despite finding the stat sheet earlier in the season, Bollig has ceased producing. That, coupled with his two fights this year and a team-high in penalty minutes, has also meant minimal minutes for Bollig.
The solution lies in a new fourth line featuring both Bollig and Bickell. Both forwards could use not only a dose of physicality and energy to their game, but a simplified fourth line with massive size and decent speed could benefit the team massively.
Ben Smith, who has been playing better despite being dinged up on Sunday night, could get a chance in more of a finesse role on the third line with Brandon Saad, once again restoring the ideal three scoring and one checking line ideology that has led the Blackhawks to victory.
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