Depth tends to separate the contenders from the pretenders this time of year. The teams that advance to conference finals and beyond usually get contributions from more than just their superstars and goalies. They are comprised of a deep group of players, sometimes injury fill-ins and offer a boost to their team.
Could be that timely “secondary scoring” that teams thrive on, when a lower line chips in a goal at the right time. It could be a big shift of possession where grinders work the puck down low for an extended time, giving and receiving checks, working hard and more importantly making the other team work hard to play defense. Or it could be big hits or winning a majority of faceoffs.
Everyone has a role to play in the NHL, and the guys who don’t look up to the crowd and see fans wearing their jersies en masse are just as important as the stars as the Stanley Cup playoffs grind on.
For Boston, their 4th line is becoming the stuff of legends. Known as the “Merlot Line” for the color of the practice jersey they regularly wear- Daniel Paille, Shawn Thornton and Gregory Campbell have been more than just a fourth line, they’ve been an engine that’s powered the Bruins. Though they play 4th line minutes (7:57 per game these playoffs for Thornton, 11:08 for Paille and 11:59 for Campbell). They’ve been united for years and have a great chemistry that is forged game-after-game.
And so far in this post-season, they’re also scoring. Campbell (3g+2a), Paille (2g+3a) and Thornton (0g+3a) have shown up on the scoresheet more than guys who should be on there, like Jaromir Jagr (0g+4a), Tyler Seguin (1g+3a, and only 2 even strength points) and Rich Peverley (1g+0a). While that doesn’t paint a flattering picture of the guys getting more ice-time and are expected to contribute production, it is an indicator of how Boston’s 4th line has been a consistently steady force.
Pittsburgh’s 4th line is a lot more fragmented in terms of personnel. Some who’ve played poorly in their roles (like Joe Vitale for faceoffs or Tanner Glass) have been benched, some like Tyler Kennedy have risen into 3rd line minutes. Pittsburgh’s current fourth line, based off practice is Brenden Morrow (former Dallas Stars captain and 30 goal scorer), Jussi Jokinen (former 30 goal scorer) and jack-of-all-trades Craig Adams. Due to injuries and changing roles, Pittsburgh's 4th line doesn't have nearly the consistency or resume of Boston, but they do have the depth and luxury of having several good players forming it.
Even if the Pens can’t match the level of chemistry that the Boston players who definitely understand each other do, they do benefit from the skill factor that guys like Morrow and Jokinen can bring. That’s a testament to the Pens depth that due to trades (and health) that they can play a lineup deep enough to have such a solid 4th line.
Watching these battles could ultimately decide who moves on to play for the Stanley Cup. Though 4th liners tend to get 7-12 even-strength minutes, they can change the course of that game in many ways. Like a big fight like Thornton is known to do, or a huge check like the one Adams dropped Jason Spezza, or a key goal. There’s also the killers like if the 4th line is on the ice for a goal against, or if a 4th liner takes a penalty, he’s likely to be stapled to the bench if the game is close by his coach.
The stars and the goalies are fun to watch and will have a lot to say about the outcome of the Eastern Conference finals, but the energy players at the bottom of the depth chart are just as eager, and capable to make a play (good or bad) that could turn the tide of a game or series. It’s one of many fun things to watch this time of year and with the way both Boston and Pittsburgh can roll through four lines of forwards, it’s going to make a fun aspect of the series.