Third, fourth lines step up when Bruins needed them most

Scott McLaughlin
April 24, 2019 - 2:03 am
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For most of the Bruins’ first-round series against the Maple Leafs, the Patrice Bergeron line and John Tavares line played each other to a draw.

Sure, the two teams’ respective top lines each had games they “won” over the course of the series (Games 1 and 3 for Tavares; Games 4 and 6 for Bergeron), but on the whole everything ended up pretty even.

That meant that if they played each other to a stalemate in Game 7, someone else was going to need to step up and provide the offense that would decide who moves on.

The Bergeron and Tavares lines did play each other to a virtual stalemate Tuesday night, and the someone else who stepped up turned out be the Bruins’ third and fourth lines, who scored all three of their non-empty net goals to lead Boston to a 5-1 win and into the second round.

While coach Bruce Cassidy had at times tried to get Bergeron away from Tavares when he had last change at home in this series, it was clear by Game 7 that he was as content with that matchup as Toronto coach Mike Babcock was.

When Babcock started the game with the Tavares line and Jake Muzzin-Nikita Zaitsev pairing, Cassidy countered with the Bergeron line and Zdeno Chara-Charlie McAvoy pairing. When Babcock kept sending the Tavares line out for offensive-zone faceoffs throughout the first period, Cassidy sent the Bergeron line on to handle as tough a defensive assignment as you’ll get in the NHL.

For much of the series, Cassidy had tried getting Bergeron and Marchand on the ice for more offensive zone draws than defensive zone draws. Not in Game 7. Cassidy rode the top line vs. top line matchup regardless of where the faceoff was, and asked others to provide the offense if Bergeron and Marchand were going to be tied up playing defense.

The playoffs have a funny way of producing unlikely heroes, and that’s exactly what happened Tuesday night. First it was the fourth line of Joakim Nordstrom, Sean Kuraly and Noel Acciari. Late in the first period, Acciari made a nice play to keep the puck in the offensive zone, and Kuraly made a nice play to weave through some traffic. Eventually the puck got to Nordstrom in the lower right circle, and he somehow squeezed a shot through the smallest of spaces between Frederik Andersen and the post to give the Bruins a 1-0 lead.

Then a few minutes later it was the third line of Marcus Johansson, Charlie Coyle and Karson Kuhlman. Kuhlman got in on the forecheck and forced a turnover, and Johansson picked up the loose puck, walked out front and beat Andersen blocker-side with Coyle providing a bit of a screen.

After the Leafs had cut it to 2-1, the fourth line struck again early in the third to give the Bruins some breathing room. Nordstrom and Acciari combined for a breakout, then Kuraly -- at the end of a shift -- rushed up the ice, skated right past Toronto defenseman Ron Hainsey, and, before Morgan Rielly could step up on him, snapped off a quick shot that flew past Andersen’s glove. (By the way, this was the rare goal where two players got assists but not a plus in the plus/minus column -- Nordstrom and Acciari both got assists for their breakout efforts, but then changed off while Kuraly was rushing up ice, so neither of them were actually on the ice for the goal).

To say the Bruins’ third and fourth lines decided the whole series wouldn’t be accurate. In fact, they went through some major struggles at times. Coyle was solid all series, but he had to deal with a revolving door of wings as Danton Heinen got moved up to Bergeron’s line, and Johansson missed a game due to illness, and Backes came into the lineup on his wing and then got taken out the lineup. In Game 5 alone, Coyle played with three different wing combinations.

On the fourth line, the Bruins had Acciari centering Nordstrom and Chris Wagner for each of the first four games, but a strong Game 2 wasn’t enough to overcome ineffective efforts in Games 1, 3 and 4. Kuraly returned from injury and replaced Nordstrom in Game 5, but that didn’t work so well either and, combined with David Backes’ lackluster play on the third line, resulted in Cassidy resorting to all kinds of in-game line-juggling (hence Coyle playing with three different sets of wings).

But then in Game 6, Cassidy finally found something that clicked, for both the third and fourth lines. Kuhlman re-entered the lineup after being a healthy scratch for two games and slotted in at third-line right wing next to Coyle and Johansson. Nordstrom also re-entered the lineup in his usual fourth-line left wing spot, with Kuraly sliding from left wing to center, Acciari from center to right wing, and Wagner to the bench.

Neither of those lines scored in the Bruins’ Game 6 win, but they did both play well. At 5-on-5, they combined for an 18-7 edge in shot attempts, 11-4 edge in shots on goal, and 6-2 advantage in scoring chances.

Unsurprisingly, Cassidy stuck with it for Game 7, and this time they added the scoring when the Bruins needed it most.

"Terrific," Cassidy said of their play. "That’s why they’re in the lineup. I think we’ve got a lot of good choices. Very difficult to tell a couple of the guys who didn’t play they weren’t going to. They played a part of the series. We talked about it at the start of the series that we felt we needed a certain type of lineup to beat Toronto, and we finally found it late in the series."

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