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Quenneville keeps Chicago on even keel

CHICAGO – Through all the talk of the core players who have powered the Chicago Blackhawks to the top of the NHL and through all the work of General Manager Stan Bowman to escape salary cap jail, there has been one constant.

Joel Quenneville.

The longtime former NHL defenseman, known much better in these parts for his gravelly voice and bushy moustache and by the nickname “Q”, was working toward a slice of history Monday night in Game Six of the Stanley Cup final.

The Hawks went into the game against the Tampa Bay Lightning looking for a win that would clinch their third Cup in six seasons. That’s considered by most experts to be a veritable dynasty now in the age of the cap.

For Quenneville, it would make him just the 10th coach in league history to win three Cups – and the first one to join that club since Glen Sather did it during the Edmonton dynasty days of the 1980s.

Quenneville has stayed on an even keel in this series and wasn’t going to let the prospect of another Cup change that, even though he’s experienced two clinchers already.

“We’ve got the same preparation going into it,” Quenneville said. “I don’t think you want to change too much of your mindset. I think you don’t want to get ahead of yourself. You don’t want to think about the end. You got to think about your opponent, starting with the importance of every single shift. So I think our focus is on the job and the task at hand.”

Quenneville, 58, and Jacques Lemaire are the only two men in NHL history to have played in 800 or more games and coached 1,000 or more. Quenneville leads active coaches and is third in NHL history with 754 regular-season wins, and became the third coach in history to lead 200 postseason games in Game Two of this series. He has 114 playoff wins, also third in league annals.

It was 37 years ago Monday — June 15, 1978 — that an 18-year-old Quenneville was taken with the third pick of the second round, then No. 21 overall, by the Toronto Maple Leafs out of the Windsor Spitfires. (The Sabres went with Larry Playfair that year at No. 1 and took Tony McKegney in the second round at No. 32 overall). Quenneville’s 803 career games are the second-most of any second-rounder that year next to McKegney’s 912.

Quennevile played 13 seasons with the Leafs, Colorado Rockies, New Jersey, Hartford and Washington. The Whalers of the late ‘80s were a feisty bunch who never went far in the playoffs but they had some brains on those teams. The rosters included future NHL head coaches in Quenneville, Kevin Dineen, Dave Tippett and John Anderson, assistants like Doug Jarvis, Ulf Samuelsson and Brent Peterson, future GMs in Ron Francis and Don Maloney, a top television analyst in Ray Ferraro, even a player agent in Mike Liut.

It’s easy to forget that Quenneville was once just another coach struggling to make it through the postseason. While directing St. Louis and Colorado from 1996-2008, he got to the Western Conference finals just once and saw the unemployment line. Since taking over for Denis Savard four games into the 2008-09 season, the Hawks have been to five conference finals in seven years.

“I think you should get better in a job every day,” Quenneville said during this series. “You get a little bit more experience. You get different situations. You know the players better, the league better, might know your opponent better. Every season’s different.

“I think you’ve got to evolve a little bit with the way the game has changed. But pretty well kept the same approach, how we work with players, how we deal with individuals, communication lines. The important thing is it’s about the team, accountability. A lot of things go into it. To me it’s never about me, it’s about the group around us. Try to maximize everybody’s effectiveness. Team comes first. Go from there.”

For the most part, the players swear by Quenneville’s methods.

“Joel has done an incredible job of, I think, just gauging where we’re at throughout some of these series,” Jonathan Toews said. “He knows what our team needs to do, what look we need to change as far as matchups or lineup combinations, things like that. I think he identifies things that will make us stronger going into the later games in the series.

“As individuals, he also finds ways to enable you to bring out your best as well. It’s just been a great combination, the players that we have, the leadership group we have in the room, combining that with the type of coaching staff we’ve had over the years.”

Players also say that Quenneville never loses confidence in them and they understand there’s methods to some of his madness, like making a quick line change three seconds into a Western Conference final game in Anaheim to get a better matchup.

Kris Versteeg, for instance, was a healthy scratch four times against the Ducks and again in Game Three of this series. But he knew Quenneville could come back to him at any moment, and Versteeg paid him back with the key assist on Antoine Vermette’s winning goal in Game Five of the final.

“It’s always about staying ready,” Versteeg said. “I guess that starts in practice. Whoever is not in the lineup on any given night, we all feel we’re good players, we all feel we’re players that can contribute. I don’t think that confidence is lost in us and we get it from him.”