CHICAGO – They sound more and more like Joel Quenneville the longer they play for the Chicago Blackhawks, and that probably is the biggest testament to his wildly successful run in the Windy City.
Led by captain Jonathan Toews, the core group of players from three Stanley Cup titles harps on consistency and being predictable with its play. The Blackhawks gear up for the playoffs and expect to be successful. They stick to the same themes Quenneville brought with him to Chicago when he took over.
The 57-year-old former defenseman is the right coach in the right place at the right time.
"He's been, obviously, huge for a lot of us," star winger Patrick Kane said. "Coming in here when we were at a young age, I think he taught a lot of us a specific way to play without taking away any creativity or freedom. ... He's been great with us, and we're very lucky and fortunate to have him."
While Kane and his teammates get most of the credit for Chicago's long stay atop the NHL — something Quenneville no doubt prefers — their coach is in the middle of one of his best jobs since he took over just four games into the 2008-09 season, replacing Denis Savard after the Hall of Famer was let go by former general manager Dale Tallon.
Deftly incorporating a promising group of young players into the lineup with his veteran stars, Quenneville has the Blackhawks in prime position to make a run at a second straight championship — something the franchise has never accomplished. Tuesday night's 3-2 victory over Nashville was Chicago's eighth consecutive win and put the Blackhawks (28-13-4) right behind Dallas for the top spot in the Western Conference.
"We keep hearing it's a different atmosphere from guys who come in from other teams," goaltender Corey Crawford said. "He played the game. He played maybe 800 or so games in the NHL and he's been around a long time as a coach. Over that experience, you get a feel for what your players need and for how you can get the best out of your guys. It's like he's giving us the best of both worlds. We get rest and then practicing at the right times, too."
Seven players have scored their first NHL goal while playing for Chicago this season — the highest total in the league, according to STATS — refuting a long-running criticism of Quenneville that he is reluctant to use younger players.
"I think on a need basis, I mean, there's nothing wrong with playing guys, I like playing guys that are young," Quenneville said. "I don't care how old or where you're from or how much money you make. It's, you know, your play will dictate how much and where."
Quenneville is tied with Al Arbour for second on the NHL coaching list with 782 wins, behind only Scotty Bowman's total of 1,244. He also tops active coaches with 115 career postseason victories, including his time with St. Louis and Colorado.
Quenneville's playing career, spent mostly in Hartford, directly influences how he treats his players today. But he also has an eye for matchups, evidenced by Chicago's 116-33-16 home record since the start of the 2012-13 season, where he makes the most of having the last line change.
"He's very knowledgeable of the game and how the game works, and he's great with people," said Arizona coach Dave Tippett, who played with Quenneville with the Whalers. "We knew he was going to be a good leader, whether in hockey or whatever he decided to get into."
Carolina general manager Ron Francis, another former teammate, praised Quenneville's communication skills and called the Windsor, Ontario, native "a great evaluator of talent."
"Knowing him as well as I do, I'm not surprised he's having the success he's having," Francis said.
The Blackhawks announced a three-year contract extension with Quenneville on Tuesday that runs through the 2019-20 season. While leaving open the possibility of coaching past that point, Quenneville downplayed his chances of catching Bowman, a senior adviser to his son and Chicago general manager Stan Bowman.
Next up for Quenneville is just Montreal on Thursday. Everything else can wait for now.
"It's been a fun time here and we've got a fun situation going on right now here," he said.
AP Sports Writer Joedy McCreary in Raleigh, North Carolina, and AP freelance writer Jose Romero in Phoenix contributed to this report.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap