Hawks right on 'Q'

Regardless of how the Blackhawks' season turns out, one question will be left unanswered: Could they have done just as well without the controversial coaching change from Denis Savard to Joel Quenneville only four games into the season?


The once-hapless Hawks improved steadily in Savard's 147-game stint behind the bench, but they've really taken off since Quenneville took over. Tonight they'll be chasing their fourth straight road victory against the NHL's best team, the San Jose Sharks.

Already 3-0 on what is traditionally a killer trip, the Hawks hope to finish it off with wins against the Sharks, the Anaheim Ducks on Friday and the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday. Since moving into the United Center in 1994, the Hawks have had only two winning records on the annual jaunt while the circus takes over the UC. They were 2-1-4 in 1995 and 3-1-2 in 1997. In Savard's last season, they were 2-2-2.

So what is it about Quenneville, who seems to have done little wrong since moving behind the bench Oct. 16? The Hawks are 9-2-4 under his direction.

''It seems like we have more offense now,'' said goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, who will start his fourth game in a row tonight. ''We're playing with a little more confidence. When you win, it seems like all the guys are happy. It's fun right now.''

''Joel's been great,'' top goal-scorer Patrick Sharp said. ''We were confident of his ability. We knew what kind of coach he is. He knows how to handle tough losses and big wins. The players have responded well since Joel took over.''

The most noticeable change immediately after Quenneville arrived was the faster pace of practices. Otherwise, he hasn't dwelled on the subtle changes he may have instituted from the Savard days.

''We didn't change too much,'' Quenneville said. ''Our coverages changed a little bit. We wanted to make sure we played a faster-paced game and pressure a little bit more.''

Savard's start was similar: The Hawks were 5-0-3 in the first eight games after he succeeded Trent Yawney. That pace, as well as the pace at which the Hawks are playing for Quenneville, is difficult to maintain. Both coaches were dealing with young players, and the current Hawks are the youngest team in the NHL with an average age of 25.6.

''We are really young,'' Quenneville said, ''but it's a fun group. They get along well together on and off the ice. They care for one another. They've got some speed, they've got some skill. We want to get better on a day-to-day basis, and there's a lot of room for improvement.''

Quenneville's most significant move was sitting offensive Stars Sharp and Patrick Kane for most of the second period last week at Phoenix after both had taken some careless penalties.

''The message was definitely sent, and that was a good way to send it,'' Kane said. ''At one point in the middle of the bench were me, Sharpie and Duncan Keith [the team leader in ice time]. Now the penalties we're taking aren't hooking and tripping; they're more like unfortunate calls. We can't be lazy in this league and take those penalties.''

Penalties had loomed as a major problem for the Hawks. They were among the league leaders in that department, but since the sitting of the Stars, they've taken only six in the last two games.

''It didn't matter who they were,'' Quenneville said. ''It was something that needed to be addressed. We had to get over the hurdle of taking seven, eight penalties per game. We had to get it to a more manageable number, which gives us a better chance of winning.''

With 25 points in 19 games, the Hawks are on pace for their first 100-point season since 1992-93. To reach that plateau, they'll have to continue their good play on the road. The recent hot streak has improved their record to 4-3-1 on enemy ice, but that isn't a whole lot better than last season's 17-18-6 mark.

''We had a couple stretches in our last two games when we weren't at our best, but weathering those two storms shows we're capable of a lot of things,'' Quenneville said. ''We're pretty happy with the way things have gone. We've played in some tough buildings and gotten some momentum on the road. We want to make sure we play the same home and away.''

Comment at suntimes.com.

TONIGHT

Blackhawks AT Sharks

The facts: 9:30, Ch. 9, 720-AM.

The story line: The Hawks continue their six-game road trip at HP Pavilion -- better known as the Shark Tank -- where the home team is unbeaten this season (11-0-1) as part of the league's best record (17-3-1). Evgeni Nabokov will return in goal tonight for San Jose. He hasn't played since suffering a lower-body injury while making the final save of a shootout victory over St. Louis on Nov. 6.

Ex-Hawk Brian Boucher was 7-1-1 while Nabokov was out, including a 6-5 win over the Hawks on Nov. 16 at the United Center.




Author: Fox Sports
Author's Website: http://www.foxsports.com
Added: November 27, 2008