LAS VEGAS – Hockey’s fourth line: it’s not usually synonymous with playing solid minutes and being thrown into tense, pivotal situations.
The fourth line is supposed to grab ice time when it can, provide some energy and give the top lines a breather. But for the Chicago Blackhawks’ trio of Brandon Bollig, Marcus Kruger and Ben Smith, their roles and minutes haven’t been minimal. The group has provided a strong presence often this season, and it was noticeable again in the Blackhawks’ 5-2 victory over the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday night.
Coach Joel Quenneville was highly complimentary of the three following the game.
“That line was great; they’ve been good for a long stretch of time here,” he said. “They don’t need to be productive to reflect how well they’ve played. They start in our end usually end up in theirs. They had some high-quality chances; they were dangerous.”
The stats have reflected that. Bollig fired a game-high six shots on goal and logged more than 12 minutes on Wednesday night; he has six goals and six assists this season as his game continues to evolve. Kruger, who had a goal waved off on Tuesday and nearly had another on Wednesday, has 23 points. We’ve hit on his face-off improvement for good reason; ranked 70-something in the league last year, he’s now seventh in winning percentage (57.4). Smith, who played nearly 15 minutes on Wednesday, has 16 points this season.
The Blackhawks will certainly take any points those three produce, but their chief duty is to prevent the opposition from scoring. Quenneville hasn’t been shy in throwing Bollig, Kruger and Smith against top lines in tight situations. The responsibility and their ability to handle it has given the three players confidence. Couple that with the chemistry they’ve generated – they’ve rarely been separated these past three months – and they’re breaking the fourth-line stereotype.
Quenneville, who rewarded his fourth liners by starting them in a game earlier this month, said Bollig, Kruger and Smith have been successful because they’re keeping it simple.
“They have tenacity around the puck, good puck support, puck protection and they make simple and safe plays,” Quenneville said. “If they get a shot on net or a chance to score, great. But they don’t force things and keep it as simple as possible.”
Simple, solid, effective: Bollig, Kruger and Smith have played ample minutes and have played their roles well during them. They don’t make up the typical fourth line, and that’s bode well for the Blackhawks.