The Chicago Blackhawks have had a highly regarded fourth line for some time. However, this year’s fourth line has a new look, literally. In prior years, the line has been filled with a veteran presence, but in 2013-14, Chicago has seen the young guns take over.
At the beginning of the season, nobody thought Chicago’s fourth line would be an important piece of the high-flying Hawks this year. With explosive talent on each of the top three lines, the fourth line was expected to have minimal impact. Instead, a line consisting of a player in his first extended role with the team, a face-off specialist, and a supposed “grinder” have been integral to the team’s success.
We begin with Ben Smith, a 26-year-old winger who’s most notable performance came in game six of the 2010-11 Western Conference quarterfinals against Vancouver when he sent the series to a decisive seventh game after scoring the winner in overtime. The Blackhawks had previously trailed the series three games to none. Smith had only played in six regular season games for the Blackhawks that season, yet became an instant hero. The following year, he played in 13 games during the regular season but struggled, netting just two goals and finishing a minus-five. Last season, Smith made just one regular season appearance and one playoff appearance in an emergency spot due to injury. However, this year has been different, with Smith becoming a more prolific member of the offensive attack. The right winger has played in 48 games thus far, netting seven goals and tallying nine assists. Most importantly, he is playing smart hockey, not trying to do too much. This was the problem that plagued him the last few seasons. Another symbol of Smith’s smart play this season has been seen with his penalty minute numbers. Smith has taken just one minor penalty all season.
Center Marcus Kruger has found himself a home in Chicago, and has made a name for himself in the process. The 23-year-old was named to the Swedish Olympic hockey team in a bit of a surprise move to some. Based on his numbers this season, however, he has earned his spot as an Olympian. Kruger ranks eighth in the league this year at the dot with a 57.3 face-off win percentage, but that is not all he has done. Kruger has found the scoring touch as well. His career mark was set scoring 26 points during the 2011-12 season, and he approaching that point this year, sitting at 23 points. Especially with the Blackhawks offense sputtering as of late, his contributions have been essential to keep the Blackhawks within striking distance of the conference-leading Ducks. Kruger has tallied points in seven of the last ten games (1 G, 6 A) coming into Tuesday night’s game in Calgary and has also won 55.9% of his draws in the face-off circle
Brandon Bollig has always been thought of, even by Blackhawks fans, as a grinder. Ever since the physical presences of Dustin Byfuglien, John Scott, Daniel Carcillo, and now Jamal Mayers have left, Bollig has played the role of enforcer on the team. In his first year in the pros, he hovered around three penalty minutes per game. The following year, he averaged a minor per game. This season, although Bollig is still regarded as the enforcer on the team, those penalty numbers have dwindled down to just 1.2 minutes of sin bin time per game. Acting almost as a reward for his good behavior, Bollig has developed a scoring instinct this year. In his first two seasons with the team, Bollig failed to record a point over 43 games. In 55 games this season, he has scored six goals and notched 12 points. The 26-year-old left winger has been especially crucial as of late, again in reference to the Blackhawks recent scoring troubles. He had found the net twice in the last four games entering Tuesday’s action. Recognizing his performance this season, Bollig has seen a significant increase in his playing time, with his number of shifts increase from 12 per game to 17.
They may be a young, inexperienced line, but this Blackhawks fourth set has all the parts of a thoughtfully constructed line. Grit, consistency, and an occasional scoring burst is what makes this group. Hence, Blackhawks fans have given the fourth liners an upgrade to line “2-B” as a token of their appreciation. Come playoff time, it is the little details that help you win a Stanley Cup. The Blackhawks organization and its fans certainly know that, and this group on the fourth line could be that one piece that sets the Blackhawks apart from the rest of the league.