CHICAGO -- The Chicago Blackhawks possessed a unique and successful fourth line for much of the season.
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville toyed with various fourth-line combinations throughout the first month of the season. He finally found something he liked when he threw together left wing Brandon Bollig, centerman Marcus Kruger and right wing Ben Smith against the Winnipeg Jets on Nov. 2, in the 14th game of the season.
The combination had the qualities Quenneville sought in a fourth line. The three players embraced their roles. Bollig and Smith were willing to do whatever it took to stay on the ice. Kruger had developed a reputation for his defense. They also understood their responsibilities.
Quenneville came to trust them so much he began using them in the defensive zone more than any other coach was using a fourth line around the league. The line wasn’t only starting more than 50 percent of the time in the defensive zone, but it was also often facing opponents' top lines. The line held its own and allowed Quenneville to give his more offensive players more time in the offensive zone. The three players combined for a plus-8 rating in the regular season.
That strategy worked until the playoffs arrived. As Quenneville began tinkering with his lines to get more production against the St. Louis Blues in the first round, he took apart his reliable fourth. Smith was put on the second line. Kruger was moved to the third line. Bollig was introduced to new linemates on the fourth.
With the changes in the fourth line have come changes in its use and success rate. Quenneville began cutting the line’s minutes in the first round, and the Blackhawks were at times a three-line team. Aside from the diminished minutes, the line has also become less consistent. The fourth line has been on the ice for all three of the Minnesota Wild's goals in the second round.
Quenneville said Monday he doesn’t expect his current fourth line to duplicate what Bollig, Kruger and Smith did.
“They had a lot of responsibility,” Quenneville said of that group. “I don't think many lines or any lines in the league start 90 percent of their shifts in your own end, and you're confident that you can play them against the other team's top line on the road or anywhere.
“It was very effective for us, and I don't think we had that type of a line over the course of the last five years, so it was kind of a unique situation. As it's evolved, you know, [Kruger] gets a little more responsibility, [Smith] gets a little more responsibility, and it kind of evolved into a different line.”
The fourth line in Game 1 against the Wild became Bollig, Michal Handzus and Joakim Nordstrom. The combination received more ice time than the fourth line had been getting late in the Blues series -- playing close to eight minutes together.
The line was also given a variety of zone starts -- though the Wild often kept the line in the Blackhawks’ defensive zone. The three players averaged a 22.6 Corsi percentage (shot differential). The Blackhawks had an average of 4.3 shots for and 19 shots against when the three players on the ice in 5-on-5 situations, according to extraskater.com. The line was also on the ice for both of the Wild’s goals in Game 1.
Afterward, Quenneville said he was satisfied with his fourth line.
“I think it was fine,” Quenneville said Saturday. “I thought the one goal where we should have definitely gotten the puck out with the puck in at center ice. They had some point shot that went through and went in. So nobody wants to be on the ice for goals against. I think we look to be better in that area.”
Quenneville went with a different fourth line in Game 2. He made Bollig a healthy scratch for the first time this season and had Kris Versteeg, Handzus and Jeremy Morin as the fourth line. The line’s minutes fell again; Morin played 5 minutes, 42 seconds. The three players averaged a 39.0 Corsi percentage (the Blackhawks averaged three shots for and 7.6 shots against when they were on the ice in 5-on-5 situations). They were also on the ice for the Wild’s lone goal.
Quenneville didn’t say which combination of players he would use for the line in Game 3 on Tuesday, but he hoped it would give him more going forward.
“But we'll see how it works out, that group,” Quenneville said Monday. “And we're looking to get a contribution from that line as we go along here.”