NEW YORK — In 2002, Buffalo drafted Daniel Paille with the 20th overall pick. Paille was coming off a 27-30—57 junior season in Guelph, Ontario. The Sabres did not intend to spend their first-round selection on a future NHL fourth-liner.
“We thought of him as a hard-working, two-way type player,” recalled Bruins assistant general manager Jim Benning, then the Sabres’ director of amateur scouting. “We thought he’d be a real good third-line player for us.”
In one way, that hasn’t changed. This year, Paille scored 10 goals in 46 regular-season games, about the pace of a typical second- or third-line wing. Paille is one of the fastest straight-line skaters on the roster. Shawn Thornton regularly observes that Paille and Gregory Campbell would play bigger roles on teams without as much depth.
“They’re extremely good hockey players,” Thornton said. “They’d probably play on a better line than the fourth line on a lot of other teams.”
The player with the third-line pedigree has found himself as a fourth-line left wing in Boston. Partly because Paille, Campbell, and Thornton have accepted their humble job descriptions — create energy, skate hard, check relentlessly, possess the puck down low — the Bruins are one win away from booting the Rangers from the playoffs.
On some clubs, there is a stigma of being on the fourth line. It is the landing spot of plugs, goons, and underachievers. Paille, Campbell, and Thornton do not worry about being fourth-liners.
“We don’t put a lot of stock into what we’re labeled,” Campbell said. “We just want to help the team in any way we can and be there. Every night it’s not chipping in offensively, but it’s providing energy and being hard to play against. Just really filling the role the coaching staff wants us to fill. We take pride in our job. We want to be the best at it as we can.”
In Game 3, the blue-collar boys played their game perfectly to create both of the team’s goals. Paille shuttled the puck to Johnny Boychuk at the right point. Thornton and Campbell screened Henrik Lundqvist to allow Boychuk’s shot to slip through. Later in the third, when the puck was free in the crease, Paille looped around the net to slam it past Lundqvist for the winning goal.
Neither was a lucky play. Before both goals, the fourth line sent waves of pressure on the backtracking Rangers. They reaped rewards both times.
“Those three guys, for three years, have learned about their strengths and where to be in certain situations,” coach Claude Julien said. “They do a good job. Even when you look at their forecheck, how they rotate through it, is pretty amazing. That’s why they spend a lot of time in the offensive zone. There’s also a second and third layer to keep the puck in. They spend a lot more time in the offensive zone than a lot of lines will at different times of the game.”
Their success would not have come, however, had they not accepted the roles their bosses deemed appropriate. Campbell was often tabbed for third-line action in Florida, his previous stop.
In Buffalo, Paille’s job was not as clearly defined. In 2007-08, Paille scored 19 goals, numbers more appropriate for a skilled player. But toward the end of his time in Buffalo, Paille wasn’t sure whether he should be scoring or checking. At times he did neither. Coach Lindy Ruff made Paille a healthy scratch.
There’s been no such ambiguity under Julien.
“I think that’s the difference,” said Benning. “Maybe when you’re a first-round pick, you’re expected to score. Maybe that was pressure for him there. I think here, management and the coaching staff respect what he brings to the team. I think he’s found a good role for himself.”
Thornton, a master of self-disparagement, doesn’t put himself in his linemates’ category of deserving third-line recognition. Thornton joked that the only thing that comes easily for him is fighting, a task he does not usually have to fulfill in the playoffs.
But Thornton’s assets, besides his fists, are his smarts. His hockey sense rivals that of Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and Chris Kelly. Thornton has applied himself to become more than a one-dimensional tough guy. If he couldn’t pull off the plays that he makes look routine — chips off the wall out of the zone, cross-ice floaters for Paille — Thornton would be a suit-and-tie regular in the postseason.
“He’s not a high-end skill player,” Julien said. “But he still has enough skill so you can use him and play him. That’s the thing that, as a coach, I’ve always liked of our enforcer. He’s one of those guys who can settle things down when things get out of hand, but he’s able to play. I don’t like having a guy sit on the bench playing 2-3 minutes and just utilizing him in those [fighting] situations. Thorny’s fit the bill extremely well.”
Paille, Campbell, and Thornton have been difference-makers. Their New York counterparts have been mismatched misfits. Brad Richards, once a top-line pivot, could be headed toward a buyout. Chris Kreider, projected to be a first- or second-line left wing, is playing with neither pace nor confidence. Arron Asham skated just five shifts in Game 3. None of the three is expected to see much ice time in Game 4.
Meanwhile, the Bruins will roll four lines. Julien trusts his grinders. So do their teammates.
“When those guys come up large for us, it really ignites our dressing room,” said Julien. “Guys are really happy for them. In a team sport, you sometimes have players that have more attention than others. These guys probably don’t get the attention they probably deserve on a lot of occasions. When they get that opportunity, everybody rallies around them.”