Fourth lines in hockey typically aren’t magical. For all of its focus on speed and skill, much of today’s NHL is a dirty, grimy, grinding game that tends to show up more commonly on doctor’s X-rays than official scoresheets.
Guys on the fourth line usually live in the pain, anonymously, deep in the shadows of the speedsters, the goal scorers, and the headline makers. Even backup goalies often get more ink.
“It’s more fun to make plays, it’s more fun to be creative,’’ noted Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, reflecting on what has become his delightful — and dare say magical — fourth line of Tim Schaller, Sean Kuraly, and Noel Acciari. “That’s why it’s a tough sell.”
It’s abundantly clear as the NHL’s midseason approaches that Schaller, Kuraly, and Acciari are buyers. They’ve bought lock, stock, and forecheck into becoming the Bruins’ best fourth line in memory, one capable of wearing down opponents in their own end and, lately, adept at wringing offense out of the rubble the way ol’ timey prospectors panned gold from a stream.
Consider, in the last three games, the three muckers (Schaller’s term) have produced four goals and four assists. That’s production normally the domain of first-line impresarios, not three guys who this season pull down a combined salary of $2.3 million.
In a league with a $75 million salary cap and $7 million forwards, they are basically payroll 1-percenters, now delivering like hedge fund operators.
“We keep it simple,” said Schaller, asked the secret of the trio’s success. “We all play the same game. We work off each other really well. We’re all having fun with it right now, which is cool. Keep it simple, and it works.”
Their effectiveness has become infectious, to the point where they often are the best eye candy in the Boston lineup. When they pop off the bench, full of energy, legs and arms flailing, there is the immediate buzz in the crowd that something is going to happen. A big hit deep in the opponent’s defensive zone. A forecheck turned up like a Veg-o-matic. A shot thrown at the net, with the Fab Fives (Schaller No. 59, Kuraly No. 52, Acciari No. 55) attacking a loose puck like a pack of rabid hounds.
In a league with 31 rosters chock-full of four-cylinder cars, they’re the American-made V-8s, RPMs pegged out, mufflers chopped off, intent on turning their next 32-second shift into one part drag race, one part demolition derby.
“They like the grind, the muck, whatever . . . pick your adjective,” said Cassidy. “They’re comfortable with it. And they’re big. I guess that’s the other thing —
6-2 [Schaller], 6-2 [Kuraly], and though Noel’s not tall [5-10], they’re all over 200 pounds. They’re a load to handle. And you get some of the smaller defensemen in the league now, that’s a tough matchup for them.”
Schaller, 27, the left wing, is 200 pounds. Undrafted, he turned pro with the Sabres after graduating from Providence College in 2013. He signed here in the summer of ’16, looking for a chance to kick-start his career.
“It was opportunity,” he said. “I thought this organization had a good opportunity for me as a bottom-six player. Luckily, I came in, worked my butt off, and was rewarded by playing here all last year and now this year.”
Cassidy’s view: “Best shot of the three. Probably the most skilled in terms of over their careers, yet still plays in a straight line so can complement [Kuraly and Acciari]. It’s not going to get messed up because he wants to make an extra play. And he gets to the net, with some polish in tight.”
Kuraly, 24, the center, is 205 pounds. Originally a San Jose draft pick (No. 133, 2011), he was part of the package the Bruins received for wheeling goalie Martin Jones to the Sharks. After four years at Miami (Ohio), he turned pro and spent most of last year at AHL Providence.
Cassidy’s view: “Straight-line speed. He’s really good at closing in the D zone. Will turn over pucks on the forecheck because he’s so quick and willing to get in there. And will get to the net with the puck.”
Acciari, 26, the right wing, is 210 pounds. Also never drafted, he signed as a free agent in ’15 with the Bruins after three years at Providence College. Now in his first full season with the varsity, he’s the hardest hitter on the team.
Cassidy’s view: “Body checker, straight-line [skater], will get to the net. Shot blocker. Wins pucks on the walls.”
Cassidy particularly likes that Acciari accents his big hits with a delighted smile.
“At the end of the day, I think they all recognize they are going to score goals with second effort and second chances, as opposed maybe to line rushes,” said Cassidy. “They’ve done a good job of saying, ‘Hey, let’s just get it deep every time and make sure we’re first on it.’
“They’ll have the odd line rush and make their plays, but most of the time they’re not sitting around to figure: ‘Where’s the third backchecker?’ ”
Perhaps most important, they’re having fun, feeding off one another’s energy and enthusiasm like a bunch of grammar schoolers turned out for recess.
Fourth liners don’t seek the limelight, but they can luxuriate in it, too, especially when they’ve had to reach to the rafters, grab it and steer it their way.
“Right now, we’re connecting on all cylinders,” said the soft-spoken Acciari. “Our chemistry right now has been great. We know what we are going to do with the puck. We know what each guy is going to do with it, so we definitely benefit from that.”
Kuraly is equally soft-spoken, leading Cassidy to kid that he’s not sure if the favorite son of Columbus, Ohio, speaks English.
“Yeah, heard that he said that,” said a smiling Kuraly. “Pretty funny. But you know, better being seen than heard at this stage of my career, right?”
Of the three, Kuraly has the biggest motor, charging fast and hard on every shift, his aggressiveness early in the season leading to some interference penalties. He’s toned that down the last month or so, without sacrificing his doggedness.
Overall, they’re in synch, succeeding via simplicity.
“We got a pretty clear message from the coaching staff that our job is a puck-possession line,” said Kuraly. “You know, work behind their goal line, and if we want to make offensive plays, that’s where they’re going to have to be. It’s good we have a clear idea of what all of us are going to be doing out there.”
The Bruins, on a sizzling 16-3-2 tear and chewing their way toward the top of the Eastern Conference standings, return to work Saturday night at the Garden vs. the Hurricanes. Don’t be surprised if the Fab Fives are Cassidy’s choice for the opening faceoff. They’re setting a tone right now that’s tough to beat.
“We try to be that line,” noted Kuraly, “that goes out and pushes the game in the right direction.”
“We knew it was going to work well, but maybe not this quickly,” added Schaller. “But you can talk so much about how good it’s going now, but we’ve just got to keep it going. It means nothing if we don’t do it later in the season when it’s crunch time.
“But I’ve got faith in us. We’ll be fine. We’re all the same player. We’re young kids, so we’re just going to take it and run with it.”