May 28, 2013

The magic of Merlot propels Bruins

By Andrew Merritt

Dan Paille, Shawn Thornton and Gregory Campbell combined for 10 points in the Bruins' five-game series against the Rangers. (Getty Images)

BOSTON – You’re not supposed to call them “the fourth line.” In most circles, “fourth line” is a near-derogatory term, reserved for players whose usefulness is limited to fighting or “energy” – essentially a euphemism for “physical play and zero offense.”

Most teams don’t put their fourth line out when the game is on the line. In the third period, the fourth line might not even see the ice.

All the maxims about the fourth line don’t really apply to the Boston Bruins.

In their 3-1 Game 5 victory over the New York Rangers on Saturday, which punched their ticket to the Eastern Conference final, the Bruins all four of their lines to significant use, including the line all the cool kids call the “Merlot Line,” so named for the color of the jerseys Shawn Thornton, Daniel Paille and Gregory Campbell wear in practice.

The Merlot Line was on the ice for a total of 7:22 during the game, over 11 shifts played together. That doesn’t include the shifts Campbell and Paille played without Thornton, who was in the box for a healthy chunk of the first period after a nasty fight with New York’s Derek Dorsett. The line had five shifts in the period, as well, including three in the final 10 minutes.

By comparison, Ranger fourth liners Dorsett, Kris Newbury and Micheal Haley all saw far less ice time – Newbury led the line with only 5:02 – and the line had only one shift in the third period as John Tortorella shortened his bench in an attempt to generate offense.

But this wasn’t an anomaly, or a result of the situation. The Bruins have relied on the Merlot Line all year, perhaps more than any other team’s fourth line. While coach Claude Julien occasionally comes under fire from the highly qualified amateur coaches on talk radio for his insistence on using all 12 forwards at his disposal, there’s a method to his perceived madness.

“I’m not a coach that rolls four lines because I want to roll four lines, I roll four lines because I know I’ve got the depth to roll four lines,” Julien said. “If I was coaching a team that didn’t have four lines, than I would no doubt shorten my bench.”

It’s a philosophy that has paid off many times this year, but never in a bigger situation than Game 5 on Saturday, when the fourth line produced the Bruins’ winning goal. An ill-advised outlet pass by the Rangers’ ancient Roman Hamrlik led to a turnover, with Paille bringing the play back to the offensive zone. His saucer pass attempt was too high for Thornton to handle, but the deflection set up Campbell perfectly for a tiebreaking goal with 6:19 to go in the second period.

It’s rare to see an “energy line” crash the net as effectively as Paille, Thornton and Campbell did on the play.

“The play started with Piesy having the poise to make a good play in the neutral zone and hold onto that puck,” Campbell said. “And he really used his speed and his strength to carry it in, not just chip it in, but to carry it in and realize that [Thornton] was driving and trying to make a play, and I just caught the garbage there.”

The fine play was a bit of deserved redemption for Paille, who earlier had a hand in giving the Rangers the first goal of the game. With David Krejci in the box on a cross checking call midway through the first, Campbell got kicked out of an offensive zone faceoff, and Paille lost the draw to Boston College product Brian Boyle. The Rangers took the puck up the ice and set up their power play – a unit that was a woeful 4-for-44 in the playoffs, and hit its nadir against Boston, going 2-for-16. The puck came to Girardi at the point, and Paille skated out to cover. As Girardi fed back to Mats Zuccarello on the right-wing halfboards, Paille lost an edge and went skittering into the neutral zone.

With Paille out of the play, Zuccarello had an open passing lane to Girardi, feeding the Ranger defenseman for a one-timer that beat Tuukka Rask and gave New York a 1-0 lead.

“It’s a play that I do time and time again and most of the time I stand up, but unfortunately I just fell, and it gave them an opportunity with a wide open shot,” Paille said. “So I felt responsible for them so I somehow wanted to make it up and continue to play my game and not try to show any frustration with it.”

Paille more than made up for what really amounted to an unlucky shift with a highly visible result. Usually, hockey players talk about being rewarded for good play with more ice time. Julien turned that idea on its head when asked about the Merlot Line’s contributions.

“They were rewarding us with big goals,” the coach said. “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.”

Campbell rewarded his coach again with an empty-netter, on another workmanlike play that saw the winger diving to the ice to swipe a puck into the open Pittsburgh net for a punctuating third goal.

Depth may have been the biggest X-factor in the series. Julien’s ability to rely on all 12 forwards instead of just three “scoring lines” was something the Bruins’ opponents took note of as well.

“Yeah, you see that they have a lot of guys contribute throughout the series,” New York defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “Obviously, tonight the fourth line gets a goal, and they were pretty dangerous the whole series.”

Going forward, the Bruins will certainly need that depth. The Pittsburgh Penguins aren’t afraid to use all four of their lines either, and while the end of their 6-2 victory over Ottawa in the fifth and final game of their series was a little different than the crunch time of the Bruins’ Game 5 against New York, all three of the Penguin fourth-liners saw more than 10 minutes of ice time.

The faith Dan Bylsma has in his fourth line is on par with the faith Julien has in his. For the players, that means a mistake here or there – a lost edge on a penalty kill, for instance – isn’t going to take them out of the coach’s game plan.

“It helps knowing that [Julien] puts that trust in us,” Paille said. “[Thornton, Campbell] and myself, we tend not to try to think at all and just play our game and I think that benefits us a lot as we move forward.”

So does the Merlot Line get too much ice time?

“I’m sure [Sports Hub radio host] Michael Felger would say so,” Thornton quipped. “Yeah, probably a few more minutes than the traditional fourth lines, but my two lineys aren’t stereotypical fourth liners either. I don’t say it too often, but I think we’ve earned the right to be out there. I think we’ve proven we can actually play.”

Twitter: @A_Merritt