During the NHL Playoffs, a hot goalie can lift a team far beyond its expected standing. Mix in some clutch scoring from the top two lines and shutdown D from the top pairs of defensemen and you’ve got a recipe for winning the Stanley Cup. But if an NHL team is to make a deep run in the playoffs they must get a contribution from an unheralded source: the fourth line.
“I don’t recall any teams winning the Cup without good third and fourth lines,” Wild forward Mike Rupp said.
Rupp would know. He’s played thirteen seasons in the NHL and played a crucial checking role for several Stanley Cup contenders, eventually winning Lord Stanley’s chalice with the New Jersey Devils. Due to that previous experience, Rupp has got a handle on the unique beast that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“Obviously, the top two lines are a huge part of things,” Rupp said. “They are the catalysts of the team. But a lot of times the top lines cancel each other out. The difference this time of year is when you can provide something from the third and fourth lines.”
What a difference they have made for the Minnesota Wild, so far. In the first round of the NHL Playoffs against the Colorado Avalanche, the players rotating in and out of the bottom lines were huge factors in winning the epic best-of-seven series.
Whether it was structurally sound defense from Kyle Brodziak, timely scoring from Nino Niederreiter (three points in Game 7), savvy veteran play from Dany Heatley (plus-5 in Game 7) or stout checking and penalty killing from Cody McCormick, those third and fourth lines made huge contributions.
While the top two lines are traditionally filled with scorers and danglers, the third line is primarily a checking line used in the chess game of the playoffs to go against the opponent’s top forwards. Through the years, the fourth line has typically been the residence of agitators, muckers and fighters. In years past, the fourth line used to be deployed simply to provide some energy and physicality and mop things up late in games.
But in today’s NHL, a league bursting with speed and skill, all the top teams use fourth lines that are no longer a liability and can bring more than hits. They provide depth to the roster, which is desperately needed to survive the war of attrition that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They, too, must contribute offensively.
“The fourth line has to be good in their own end,” Rupp said. “But when you’re playing 200 feet away from your own goal that’s the best defense you can ask for. It’s about holding on to pucks and wearing them down (in their zone).”
The importance of the fourth line sustaining quality offensive pressure was illustrated perfectly in Game 5 between the Wild and the Avalanche.
With the game tied in the third period, Brodziak and Heatley went to work in the Avs zone. Through endless cycling and hitting the Wild forwards ground down the young Colorado defensemen. Because of the sustained forecheck, the Avs defensemen wilted and committed multiple turnovers. This softened the zone and Heatley found some space and eventually served the puck up to Brodziak for the go-ahead goal, at the time.
In the epic Game 7, the line of Brodziak, Niederreitter, and Heatley was once again one of the most dominant on the ice and twice counted for the game tying goal, and eventually, the game winner in OT.
This isn’t surprising, though. History has shown that a lot of playoff games, series, and Cups have been won with the fourth line. Recent Cup winners have all wielded highly productive fourth lines that skate regular shifts.
The Boston Bruins, the top team in the Eastern Conference, have one of the League’s most potent fourth lines in Daniel Paille, Gregory Campbell and Shawn Thornton, which is all bare knuckle and bleeding heart. (Boston Strong can be described as Campbell breaking his leg on the ice and hobbling around to complete his shift as seen in last year’s playoffs.) The Chicago Blackhawks toss out the abrasive fourth line of Brandon Bollig, Ben Smith and Marcus Kruger, which can clog and annoy an opponent like rush hour traffic.
In 2009, former Pittsburgh fourth line forward Maxim Talbot picked a fight with the Flyers and got pummeled but sparked the Penguins to rally from three goals down to win the game and the series. He went on to score the game winner in the Stanley Cup Finals. In the 90s, the Detroit Red Wings had some serious top shelf talent but arguably their most effective line during their deep playoff runs was the Darren McCarty led “Grind Line.”
And who can forget the legendary New Jersey Devils “Crash Line” of Mike Peluso, Bobby Holik and Randy McKay, a trio of thundering darkness? In the 1995 Cup Playoffs, they were an integral part of the Devils Cup run because they off set the balance of the games just like Brodziak, Niederreiter, and Heatly did in Game 7 on Wednesday night.
“Fourth line guys really come through this time of year in the playoffs,” Rupp said.