BOSTON – “Roll four lines.” At times, it’s been something of a punch line around Boston. If the offense went quiet for a few games, Claude Julien would be criticized for continuing to give his fourth line more ice time than a typical fourth line. If that line happened to be on the ice for an opponents’ goal in the third period, he’d be criticized for giving them crunch-time minutes.
But far more often than not, Julien has been rewarded for his faith in Daniel Paille, Gregory Campbell and Shawn Thornton. The Bruins’ second-round series win over the Rangers may have been their finest hour, as the trio best known as the Merlot line combined for four goals and six assists in five games. Two of those goals were game-winners, including Gregory Campbell’s first tally in Saturday’s series-clinching Game 5.
With less than seven minutes left in the second period, Paille forced a turnover in the neutral zone that led to a rush the other way. Thornton’s initial shot got blocked, but Campbell followed up the play and lifted a loose puck past Henrik Lundqvist. Fittingly, it was that line that wound up sealing the victory, as Campbell scored his second of the game on an empty-netter with 51 seconds to go.
“I can’t really put my finger on one thing,” Campbell said when asked about his line’s success. “We’re fortunate enough to have played together for the last two and a half, three years right now. That’s a very rare thing in hockey to have the opportunity to play with the same two guys. I thought we had a pretty good year. We created some chances throughout the year and really kind of set the stage for the playoffs. We knew that we were going to be relied upon at some point or other, and in the first round we played pretty hard and had some chances, too. Fortunately for us, in this round they went in.”
The Merlot line isn’t expected to score, obviously. They’re expected to bring energy, outwork other teams’ bottom lines, and swing momentum with their physical play. Well, they did that as well on Saturday.
Early in the first period, Rangers bruiser Derek Dorsett went after Paille behind the play. Thornton, who has a lot more experience than Paille when it comes to fighting, stepped in and dropped the gloves, eventually taking down Dorsett in a lengthy bout that brought the TD Garden crowd to its feet.
“Time and time again, Thorty steps up,” Campbell said. “It’s not an easy job for him. You could tell the crowd level and the noise and energy went up after that. We’re a team that sticks up for one another. It doesn’t mean necessarily fighting every time. In that case, he did fight.”
The Merlot line’s performance against the Rangers is a good reminder that they’re not your typical fourth line. And given that they vastly outperformed the third line of Rich Peverley, Chris Kelly and Tyler Seguin line in the series, it might not even be fair to call them a fourth line.
That’s why the criticism of Julien for playing them so much has almost always been misplaced. Sure, there have been times when they’ve deserved to have their ice time cut back, and times when it wouldn’t have been a bad idea to split them up for a bit, but that’s the case with pretty much every line in the league. Most of the time, Julien’s use of the trio is completely justified.
“I’m not a coach that rolls four lines because I want to roll four lines,” Julien said. “I roll four lines because I know I’ve got the depth to roll four lines. If I was coaching a team that didn’t have four lines, then I would no doubt shorten my bench. Peter [Chiarelli] and our organization have allowed us to have the players that give us the opportunity to go with four lines. They’re rewarding us with big goals. There’s no doubt that line played a big role in this series. We’re moving on and they certainly deserve a lot of credit for that.”
Paille, Campbell and Thornton were so effective against the Rangers that John Tortorella had to completely overhaul his own fourth line in an attempt to counter them. He moved offensively gifted players like Chris Kreider and Brad Richards away from the Merlot line (Kreider got moved up, while Richards got benched) and added physical grinders like Kris Newbury and Micheal Haley to the lineup.
Before Saturday’s game, Thornton said he took it as a compliment to see a team actually game-plan for his line. He added that it didn’t change anything they were trying to do, though.
The Merlot line didn’t change, and it wound up being one of the keys to the series for the Bruins. As the Bruins now set their sights on the Penguins, they know they’ll need Paille, Campbell and Thornton to continue to be difference-makers.
Like the Merlot line, the Penguins’ fourth line tends to play more minutes than a normal fourth line. Unlike the Merlot line, it isn’t always the same three players. The Penguins could go with skill in Jussi Jokinen and Beau Bennett like the Rangers tried to do at the start of the second round, or they could go with grinders like Craig Adams, Joe Vitale and Tanner Glass. Either way, the Merlot line will be ready.
“We’ve all watched Pittsburgh play,” Campbell said. “We’ve played against them enough and we have a lot of respect for that team, the way they’re coached. They have four really good lines and guys that contribute. They get scoring from every line and they’re not too far removed from winning the Stanley Cup. They know how to win, so I think it will be a great matchup. We’re excited about it, and we’re going to have to be good.”