Kalman: Bruins’ fourth liners were first stars (if you don’t count Tuukka Rask)

Matt Kalman
May 15, 2019 - 12:53 am

Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy didn’t start his fourth line for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final Tuesday the way he usually does in order to set the tone.

Instead Cassidy opted for his first line for the opening faceoff.

Despite the late start to their evening, Sean Kuraly’s line with Joakim Nordstrom and Chris Wagner on the wings still wound up all logging 10 or more minutes of even-strength ice time. Kuraly even led all Bruins forwards in 5-on-5 ice at 12:48, and Wagner scored the first goal of the game.

After the Bruins’ 2-1 win that gave them a 3-0 lead in the best-of-7 series, Tuukka Rask deserved all the accolades he received. NBCSN analyst Eddie Olczyk even joked that he wanted to give Rask, who made 35 saves, including 20 in the first period, all three stars after the game.

But all of Rask’s saves and efforts would’ve gone to waste without some offensive support and some time spent in the Carolina zone. That's what the Bruins got from Kuraly, Wagner and Nordstrom, who led all Boston forwards with Corsi For percentages of nearly 60 percent (Jake DeBrusk and David Backes were the only other forwards above 50 percent).

If Rask was Gladys Knight, the Bruins’ fourth line was the Pips, and now the Bruins are one win from the going to the Stanley Cup final for the first time since 2013.

It was appropriate that Wagner got the Bruins on the scoreboard with two thirds of the Hurricanes’ top line on the ice. As he has all season, Cassidy trusted his fourth line to be on the ice against any opponent throughout Game 3, even the line centered by Sebastian Aho. Brock McGinn, the only non-first-line forward on the ice, turned the puck over to Kuraly, who found Nordstrom in the left circle, who found Wagner for a tip at the top of the crease.

That gave Boston a 1-0 lead and put a minus in the columns of McGinn, Aho and Nino Niederreiter.

“Thought he was terrific, scored a goal,” Cassidy said to the media about Wagner after the game. “That line scored a goal by playing the right way.”

Almost every shift by the fourth line was a momentum-killer for Carolina. Midway through the third period, when the Hurricanes were down by a goal and should’ve been really ramping up for a rally, Kuraly, Nordstrom and Wagner spent 55 seconds grinding Carolina down on the cycle prior to the second television timeout of the period.

When they weren’t starring 5-on-5, two of the fourth liners were instrumental in the Bruins’ 5-for-5 penalty kill. Nordstrom was on the ice for 3:45 of penalty-kill time, including giving Patrice Bergeron a brief respite during Boston’s crucial 5-on-3 kill late in the first period. Kuraly logged 2:47 shorthanded.

The Bruins have succeeded with different iterations of their fourth line all season. Noel Acciari bumped Kuraly to left wing with Wagner on the right side for a long stretch. We’ve seen each member of the line scratched at times, out injured at others. And now the Bruins might have to march on without Wagner, who blocked a Justin Faulk shot with his right hand and left the rink in a sling. Cassidy said, “not good” when asked about the forward’s condition.

But it appears Acciari is healthy enough to contribute for the first time since he was injured in Game 4 of the second round against Columbus. And there’s no reason to expect there will be a drop off if Acciari has to replace Wagner. In fact, if Karson Kuhlman had to go in for one of the fourth liners, one would expect they would play the same tenacious, straight-line game and get the same result.

When the other Bruins lines are a tad off their game – the Bruins only other Game 3 goal came from Brad Marchand on a power play, and the Bruins were outshot 36-31 – the fourth line has been their rock this whole season, so much so that it’s almost a shame to call them the fourth line.

No strong nicknames have emerged, however, partly because of the rotating personnel.

Unlike many that have come before them, none of the Bruins’ fourth-liners has a problem with that tag. And by the weekend they’ll gladly accept being called fourth liners on an Eastern Conference championship roster.

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