Over the course of the first 4 games after the Olympic break, the Blackhawks have proven their depth to all doubters. Sure, they only have a record of 2-2 over those 4 games, but for a variety of reasons, the Hawks 4th line has been the most active and productive on the ice. Despite having the world’s best hockey player on the team, it’s the 4th line that is being relied upon to provide the spark lately. The fact that they are doing it with such ease makes them the best fourth line in the NHL.
Generally, teams may start the 2nd or 3rd lines for certain periods or even to start the game. Coach Q has started the fourth line multiple times over the last few games to get the play moving. In Thursday night’s 6-1 victory over Columbus, it was apparent that Q was looking for an early spark to both get the Hawks on the offensive, but also to put the Blue Jackets immediately on their heels. And it worked to perfection. The second period was dominated by the Hawks and it started from the first shift, which was manned by none other than the so-called “fourth line.”
But why is this tactic successful and why is the 4th line producing so well? Look no further than the 3 guys filling those spots: Marcus Kruger, Ben Smith and Brandon Bollig. Energy, energy and more energy. Plus Bollig’s nasty side where he will hit anything in sight, and you have quite a combination.
Smith was a guy who not many thought would make the team at the start of the season. Now, through 57 games played, he has 19 points and just 2 penalty minutes and averages 11:58 in ice time. Brandon Bollig has been a surprisingly consistent guy that Head Coach Joel Quenneville has had no problems deploying at any point in the game. As another vote of confidence, the Hawks just signed the 27-year-old to a 3-year contract extension.
And the final piece to the puzzle is the most tenured Blackhawk of the three, Marcus Kruger. The flying Swede is 9th on the team in points and is still just 23. For a fourth line guy to average 13:57 per game is not unheard of, but it isn’t a frequent happening in the NHL either. Against Pittsburgh in last Saturday’s Stadium Series game, Kruger was on the ice for over 17 minutes and won 77% of his faceoffs. Kruger is winning over 57.1% of faceoffs on the season – good enough for 6th in the league.
There is a reason for Kruger and Smith to have such high TOI stats, of course. It’s not injuries to the top 3 lines forcing them into more TOI, nor is it a lack of production from the top lines either. It’s because of the high pressure situations that Coach Q puts them in night after night. This high-flying duo is considered by most as the top penalty kill forward line, with Kruger continuing his same role last year when he was paired with Michael Frolik. Solid puck possession on the kill to go along with outstanding forechecking are keys to their play, and are the main reasons Coach Q makes sure Kruger and Smith are on the ice in critical penalty kill situations.
Best of the Rest
So as compared to Kruger’s 26 points, Smith’s 19 and Bollig’s 14, what other teams have strong fourth lines?
The Bruins’ line of Gregory Campbell, Daniel Paille and Shawn Thornton has been good in years past, but has been marred by injuries this year. They have a combined 39 points this year and also have 34 man-games missed between them. All three are back on the ice, so Boston’s playoff run begins now and these three will certainly be asked to provide secondary scoring. 2 years ago, the Bleacher Report ranked Boston as the top 4th line saying “without a doubt, the Boston Bruins have the best [fourth] line in the NHL. They embody what the Bruins are: grit and toughness. It doesn’t hurt that they put up points as well.”
San Jose’s 4th line took a rather large hit when rookie phenomenon Thomas Hertl went down for the season with a knee injury on December 19th. Not that he would have stayed on the fourth line, however, with the points he was putting up. Andrew Desjardins (15), Matt Nieto (18) and Tyler Kennedy (16) have done admirably as a unit and Desjardins even plays on the penalty kill, but not to the extent of the Hawks fourth grouping.
Anaheim’s 4th line has, at times, consisted of Matthew Perreault (30 points), Patrick Maroon (14 points), Andrew Cogliano (33 points). Currently, it holds Matt Belesky, Rickard Rakell and Jakob Silfverberg among others. The original 3 have moved up and become very potent components for the second highest scoring team in the NHL (behind Chicago), so I can’t leave them off this list of contenders, but they certainly aren’t the top 4th line.
The number 1 contender for the crown of “best 4th line in the NHL” might belong to the Hawks’ biggest threat in the Central division. St. Louis has won their last 4 games and the two teams face off in 2 big games coming up (March 19th and April 6th). Maxim Lapierre and Ryan Reaves are on a line with NHL veteran Brenden Morrow who just crossed 900 career games in the NHL. A veteran presence on the 4th line is what every team would love to have. Despite only averaging 11:45 TOI through 57 games, Morrow serves as another “coach on skates” to these two guys (and the rest of the team) and most certainly adds to the Blues’ extremely deep bench.
With 18 games to go in this marathon of a season, the Hawks have 8 players who haven’t missed a game. 2 of the 3 fourth liners fall into that category and Smith is the only one to miss time – and just 7 games at that. Barring an injury, expect that trend to continue. Despite the tinkering that Quenneville has been doing with other lines, and with the way they are playing, the best fourth line in the NHL should only see increased playing time as we sprint to the finish.
Doulas Cutler is a Lead Writer for The Hockey Writers covering the Chicago Blackhawks. Follow him on Twitter at @DougCutlerTHW. In addition, he also writes on The Blog of Brotherhood, dedicated to Miami RedHawks Hockey (www.blogofbrotherhood.com and @MiamiHockeyBlog). LET’S GO HAWKS!