BOSTON — So far, this has been entirely too easy for Claude Julien.
On a night where the Boston Bruins coach likened the line matching during the Stanley Cup final to a chess match, it looked like Joel Quenneville and the Chicago Blackhawks were down a rook and a bishop.
Sure, part of their offensive struggles could be attributed to the last-minute decision to scratch Marian Hossa because of an undisclosed upper-body injury.
But whether the dynamic winger is available for Game 4 or not Wednesday night, it’s clearly time for Quenneville to more aggressively try and tilt the matchups in his team’s favour.
The most obvious move would be reuniting Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane for more than a handful of shifts at even strength.
They were magic for two games at the end of the Western Conference final against Los Angeles, but have barely been seen together on the ice for more than a passing second in this series.
“They had a couple looks together (tonight),” Quenneville said after Monday’s 2-0 loss to the Bruins in Game 3. “It’s something that is available. But, you know, that’s on a need basis. That’s something you can always go to.”
This seems like the logical place to start.
It’s now been 122 minutes 26 seconds — more than two regulation-length games — since the Blackhawks scored on Tuukka Rask. You’d have to think the Finn’s soaring confidence will only continue to grow with each passing minute that stretch continues.
Meanwhile, Kane and Toews are still looking to break through against the Bruins’ stifling defence.
The pairing of Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg has been tasked with stopping the Blackhawks captain in this series — a trend that even continued when Michael Frolik and Marcus Kruger, previously fourth-liners for Chicago, skated alongside Toews in Game 3.
There is also the matter of Patrick Sharp, who is tied for the playoff lead with nine goals yet strangely found himself on the second power play unit with his team needing two goals in the waning minutes Monday night.
Overall, the Blackhawks appear to be out of sorts. The adjustments made between games loom large.
“We’ve had no problem scoring goals ever, really, since I’ve been here,” said Sharp. “We’re in the Stanley Cup final against a team that deserves to be here (and) that’s here because of the way they play physically and check away from the puck.
“It’s just tough to score out there and we’ve got to find a way. We know what’s on the line.”
Had Chicago not found a way to rally from a two-goal deficit late in Game 1, this series could be 3-0 in favour of Boston. As it is, teams winning Game 3 of the Stanley Cup after splitting the first two have won 84 per cent (21-of-25) of the time.
Of course, the Blackhawks are also just one win away from going home with a split.
“We know we’ve got to be better in the next one,” said Toews. “And (we have to) find ways to score, get that confidence in that game back. I don’t think we’re discouraged or frustrated at all, having said that.”
There should be plenty of focus on Hossa’s status after his surprise scratch.
He is considered day-to-day, according to Quenneville.
The veteran Slovak skated in the warmup before Game 3, but was replaced by Ben Smith at the last minute. Strangely, the 24-year-old Smith was essentially given no notice at all that he would appear in his first Cup final game.
His mother had even driven into the city from her home in Connecticut to have lunch earlier in the day, but went home to watch on television because she had no notion that Smith would suit up.
The rest of the Blackhawks seemed to have at least some idea that Hossa was hurting.
”It’s something we were prepared for all day — that he might not play,” said Toews. “It happens sometimes. You’re missing one of your best players and you’ve got to find a way to play without him. …
“We’ve just got to find a way to win.”
The only team that has had any amount of success against the Bruins during this post-season was the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round.
In that series, Leafs coach Randy Carlyle seemed to have some success with frenetic line juggling designed to get sniper Phil Kessel away from Chara. Perhaps Quenneville might consider employing a similar strategy with his top players.
From Chara to Rask to Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, it’s no secret why Boston has been such a tough team to generate offence against. They are a well-oiled machine that poses a daunting challenge, particularly when Julien has the last change at TD Garden.
If anything, that should give Quenneville even more incentive to mix things up.
“Right now it just seems that both teams are very aware of the other team’s top players,” said Julien.
So far, one team has been getting the better part of those matchups. It’s no coincidence that it is also ahead in the series.