Depth is proving to be the difference in the playoff series between the Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs and the best example of that is seen in the fourth lines of each team.
Time was, the fourth line in the NHL was the repository for the enforcers, grinders, agitators and anyone who played his way into the coach's bad books. But when the NHL changed its rules to speed up the game in 2005, many fourth lines also changed, with a little more skill added to the mix so the unit could keep up to the play and add a little offence.
Under head coach Randy Carlyle, the Leafs used an old-fashioned fourth line, with enforcers Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren flanking centre Jay McClement, who does not have a great scoring touch but makes himself valuable with his checking, penalty killing and sheer work ethic. But when the Leafs were out-skated as well as out-hit in Game 1 of the first-round series, with the Bruins' fourth line taking a share of the credit, Carlyle sent McLaren to the press box for the next two games and dropped agitator Leo Komarov down to the fourth line.
With the Bruins taking a 2-1 series lead into Wednesday night's game at the Air Canada Centre, there is still a huge difference in what each team is getting from its fourth line. In centre Gregory Campbell and wingers Shawn Thornton and Daniel Paille, the Bruins have a combination of skill, toughness and defensive tenacity that has seen the unit play some important minutes and contribute a couple of important goals.
In the last five minutes of Game 3, for example, with the Leafs coming hard in trying to overcome a 4-2 Boston lead, Bruins head coach Claude Julien had his fourth line on the ice as part of his defensive effort and the trio acquitted themselves with distinction.
"Claude had enough confidence in putting us out there so for us, it's just something that we don't want to disappoint [the team]," Paille said Wednesday after the Bruins' game-day skate. "We want to keep working like we have been, take the pressure off our team, continue to keep the puck in the other end as long as we can."
One thing that has not changed about the fourth line in recent years, Paille agreed, is it remains paramount the unit not be scored upon. While fourth lines are expected to score more nowadays, the goals are still thought of as a pleasant bonus. In that respect, the Bruins' fourth line is paying off.
In Game 1, after the Leafs took an early lead, Paille chased a puck to the end boards in the Leaf zone, knocked defenceman John-Michael Liles out of the way and set up a goal by defenceman Wade Redden that tied the score. The Bruins never trailed after that and won 4-1.
Then, in Game 3 in Toronto on Monday, the Leafs began showing signs of life late in the second period and wound up on a power play. But Phil Kessel made an egregious giveaway at his own blue line to Paille, who scored on the breakaway to put Boston in front by three goals.
After three games, Paille, Thornton and Campbell have a total of three points and are a collective plus-three. Orr, McClement and Komarov, on the other hand, with a comparable amount of ice time have no points between them and are a collective minus-three.
This is nothing new to Campbell and Paille, who have been stalwarts on the Bruins' fourth line for several years. In 2011, when the Bruins won the Stanley Cup, they made a valuable contribution along with Tyler Seguin, who was a 19-year-old rookie and replaced Thornton on the line for the Eastern Conference final and Cup final.
Thornton is the traditional fourth-liner on the unit, as he handles the tough stuff and scratched his head when asked what makes the perfect fourth line in today's NHL. "If I could answer that question I'd be making a lot more than I am," he said, before admitting with a laugh that in the salary-cap NHL the fourth line still "has to be cheap."
"I'm just happy to have the linemates I have," Thornton said. "Those guys could be playing on a higher line on other teams. Unfortunately they're stuck with me."
But Thornton doesn't understand why people are surprised his line is chipping in offensively. He pointed out Paille, a 29-year-old native of Welland, Ont., was a first-round draft pick in 2002 (Buffalo Sabres) and scored 19 goals for the Sabres in 2007-08 before being traded to the Bruins a year later.
"People are surprised at what he's doing but it's no surprise to the guys in this room," Thornton said. "They're good players. Just because they're on my line doesn't mean they're fourth-line players."