Role players: they’re called that because they certainly have their parts to play, especially during the postseason.
The Blackhawks know that from last year’s run. What line was on the ice, scoring and holding off Boston with about a minute left in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final? It was the fourth line of Marcus Kruger, Dave Bolland and Michael Frolik. The Blackhawks have seen glimpses of that four-line rotation this spring but, as they get deeper in the playoffs, they know they need that more often.
Coach Joel Quenneville said he liked how all four lines were working in the final two games against the Minnesota Wild – Peter Regin’s insertion helped stabilize a third line hurt by Andrew Shaw’s injury loss. He said the role trios are trending in the right direction.
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“I think it's progressing” he said following Saturday’s practice. “All year long, I thought that group, whether it was Kruger's line, Shaw's line, it was a pretty consistent production out of that group. I think later in the year, we changed a little bit in the roles and the ice time. I think it's progressing now where the last couple games had a better four-line rotation.
“But the games are tight,” Quenneville continued. “I wouldn't measure it by production, but effectiveness where we're comfortable with the momentum that all four lines are bringing and consistency.”
Quenneville’s last point is ours. Sure, if the third and fourth lines add offense, it’s always appreciated. But this goes more to sustained zone time, holding down the fort defensively in your own zone and getting into the opposition’s end as quickly as possible. Brandon Bollig, Kruger and Ben Smith did that well most of the regular season as the Blackhawks’ fourth line. It broke up because Smith earned a promotion to higher lines, but there’s no doubt there was a ripple effect. Couple that with Shaw’s loss early against Minnesota, and the third and fourth lines were in flux before balancing out again at the end of it.
And, of course, the more minutes those lines take, especially the fourth, the more energy the top two groups have.
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“They were very good for us all season. They provided a spark at different points in the regular season,” Patrick Sharp said of the Bollig-Kruger-Smith trio. “On a game-to-game basis, (you want to be) a team that can roll four lines, keep your shifts shorter and do the things that our coaching staff wants us to do. I think you always hear the term 'every shift is important,' and with our four lines, it's true.”
The Blackhawks never wanted to get away from that four-line rotation as much as they wanted to reward some players for their work. Still, given the importance of all four lines, all role players for the Blackhawks, balance ends up being more critical. The role players have shown how important they are at this time of year. They want to be that, and more consistently, down the stretch.
“We’ve done a pretty good job but you can always be better,” Brandon Saad said. “We were better against St. Louis. We seemed to create more than against Minnesota, but that’s a different team and a different ball game. Against LA it’ll be a different look than we’ve seen and different line combinations on third and fourth. But I think we’re looking pretty good.”