During the playoffs, you tend to hear a lot about fourth-liners and their importance. Whether it’s a gamewinning goal from an unexpected source or a big hit that supposedly shifts the momentum of a game, fans and media members alike love their unlikely heroes.
But it’s certainly true that a good fourth line can make a major difference in the playoffs. The ability to roll all four lines keeps players fresh throughout the post-season and makes it difficult for opposing teams to effectively match-up lines.
At least, that’s a common assertion this time of year. Let’s take a look at how true it actually is.
I took a look at all the playoff teams this season and at their bottom forwards by even-strength ice-time, then looked at how their ice time and point production compared to each other. It’s not a perfect system, as it’s complicated by teams that had injuries or moved players in and out or around the lineup, but it should still give us a pretty good indication of which teams are relying more on their fourth line and getting more out of them.
I initially considered looking exclusively at even-strength time-on-ice, but a fourth-liner who can contribute on special teams is a boon, allowing that roster spot to have more of an impact on the game than might otherwise be expected. Thus, the time on ice indicated is in all situations.
The purpose is to see if the teams that have relied on their fourth lines to play relatively significant minutes have performed better in these playoffs. The results are decidedly mixed.
The Boston Bruins “Merlot Line” has been the recipient of a lot of praise, much of it deserved. When matched up against other fourth lines on the ice, they have dominated at times and have provided secondary scoring to boot.
In comparison with other fourth lines in these playoffs, however, they have actually received a below average amount of ice time. They’re also outdone when it comes to points-per-game from the fourth line, though they are still near the top.
Leading the way in both categories is Ottawa, who rolled out a rookie-laden fourth line that saw significant time on special teams. Erik Condra led all Ottawa forwards in ice time on the penalty kill, with Jean-Gabriel Pageau also killing penalties. Condra, Pageau, and Cory Conacher also played on the powerplay.
The penalty kill was a theme for teams that led the way in ice time for their fourth line. Marcus Kruger and Michael Frolik lead all Blackhawks forwards in ice time on the penalty kill, Craig Adams leads all Penguins forwards, and Drew Miller, Patrick Eaves, and Cory Emmerton were one, two, and three in short-handed ice time.
Two teams in the conference finals appear right near the top of the ice time list: Chicago and Pittsburgh. Both teams get their fourth line out onto the ice for an average of over 11 minutes per game.
Marcus Kruger averages over 12-and-a-half minutes per game for Chicago, with Michael Frolik and Dave Bolland not far behind. It should be noted that Bolland is only on the fourth line due to recovering from an injury.
Tyler Kennedy leads the way for Pittsburgh, occasionally jumping up onto the third line, but all of the Penguins’ fourth liners, excepting Tanner Glass, are averaging over 9 minutes of ice time per game. Despite their high-powered top-end talent among their forwards, the Penguins are still giving a fairly significant amount of time to their fourth line.
At the bottom of the list: the Vancouver Canucks, whose fourth line barely saw the ice, with none of them appearing on the penalty kill. Unsurprisingly, they got no scoring from their fourth line.
Just ahead of them is the St. Louis Blues, who also had a thoroughly ineffective fourth line, including Vladimir Tarasenko, who appeared in just one game for fewer than six minutes. Given the impact he had early in the regular season, it seems odd that he would be used so sparingly.
The Canucks and Blues were both knocked out in the first round, in four and six games respectively. But before you take that as evidence of the importance of fourth lines, the Los Angeles Kings provide the counter-example.
The Kings’ fourth line is 13th in average ice time among playoff teams and is tied for 9th in fourth line scoring, only ahead of the teams that managed just one or no points from their respective fourth lines. And yet, here they are in the Western Conference Finals, albeit down 2-0 to the Blackhawks.
It seems to me that the key isn’t necessarily to give the fourth line a lot of minutes, but to give them effective minutes. Claude Julien isn’t rolling the lines in Boston the way other teams have in these playoffs, but he’s getting them into good situations and they are making excellent use of them. They are the highest scoring fourth line still in the playoffs and they may have the advantage against a Pittsburgh fourth line that is a bit more haphazard in its construction and personnel.
It’s not the fourth line, however, that has staked the Bruins out to a 2-0 lead in the series. The Bruins haven’t needed any secondary scoring, when their primary artillery is clicking along at a brisk pace.