The scoring summary, the one chock o’ block full of goals for David Pastrnak (three) and Jake DeBrusk (two), didn’t have a whole lot for the fourth line to boast about Thursday night in the Bruins’ 5-4 win over the Jets at the Garden.
But sometimes the numbers just don’t add up, or fess up, and Game No. 45 for the Black and Gold was Exhibit A in deception within the digits.
Collectively, fourth-liners Sean Kuraly, Joakim Nordstrom, and Chris Wagner had a heckuva night. Goals? No. Assists? Yeah, a couple (one each for Nordstrom and Kuraly), each attached to the first goal of Pastrnak’s hat trick. When all the math was settled, they also finished minus-4. Not a good look, yet also not the slightest indication of how they played or what they meant to the overall effort of a team that had lost two straight on home ice.
“Their line was going,” said a duly impressed Bruce Cassidy, noting, in part, that Wagner logged his best game of the season, including his game-high seven shots on net. “And I thought [Nordstrom] had lots of energy. When he’s skating, it makes a difference on that line. So they were good.”
Likewise, none of it escaped the eye of the blistering-hot Pastrnak, who ran his league-leading goal total to 35.
“Sean was flying all around the puck,” he said. “Nordy, great forechecking. And Wags was just doing his thing, had seven shots. So they just as easily could have had a couple of goals, too. Next game might be their game.”
Fourth lines, when they’re on, often act as catalysts for the forwards. Good shifts by the crash ‘n’ bangers, especially against another team’s top lines, typically make it easier for the primary scoring lines — such as Boston’s trio of Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-Pastrnak — to find the going easier when they’re on the ice.
“We’re always looking for little wins out there,” noted Kuraly. “We’re not in a position to risk the big win, so the margins are usually thin for us. Maybe we don’t win on the first shift. But over time we try to gain an advantage. Win a little. And if we lose, make the loss small, too.”
A win for the fourth line is to take possession off a faceoff in the defensive end, work the puck north, land a shot at the other end. Or tie up the puck once across the offensive blue line and get a faceoff. Change the field of possession. Disrupt the tempo, the flow, steal the other team’s confidence and spirit.
All of a sudden, that potent trio on the other side — the likes of Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele, and Patrik Laine for the Jets — gets neutralized. Scheifele and Connor both had goals Thursday night (see that collective minus-4), but their line was limited, combining for four of the Jets’ 21 shots.
Wagner was the most impressive of the bunch, pushing seven pucks on goalie Laurent Brossoit and misfiring on two other attempts. That’s nine attempts in a modest 10:58 of ice time. For contrast, Pastrnak landed five shots and had one more blocked in his 20:34.
“I told him, ‘Seven shots? C’mon, pass me the puck, will ya, Wags?’ ” kidded Kuraly.
Two or three of those attempts were first-rate scoring chances, including a five-hole stuff attempt at 13:24 of the first period that nearly proved to be the 1-1 equalizer. But Brossoit made the stop and Wagner moments later was in the dressing room, ordered off the ice by the in-arena concussion spotter who feared he might have banged his noggin on the goal-mouth crush.
“Yeah, I only hit my leg on the post, no big deal,” said Wagner. “But I get it, they have their job to do, right?”
Back on the bench to start the second period, Wagner was soon back to work and the fourth-liners kept up the beat, albeit in the relative anonymity that came with grinding away while the likes of Pastrnak and DeBrusk filled the net. No one throws hats for fourth liners. They’re the elevator music, playing in the background, while the scorers hit the button for the party on the rooftop lounge.
“Hey, we’re all skill guys at one point,” said Wagner.
True that. Of the 360-plus centers and wingers who fill out NHL rosters, all of them at some point on the way up the ladder were known as guys who deliver points. Skill guys. Shooters. Scorers.
The NHL, the best league in the world, has a way of sorting out and defining. About half of the 360 stock the top two lines across the Original 31. The rest sort out their lives as checkers and energy guys.
“The NHL’s kind of changed,” said Wagner, whose first NHL shifts came in a checking role with the 2014-15 Ducks. “When I came in, I was playing six, seven minutes and trying to get six or seven hits, then get off the ice. Now you need four lines to score and contribute.”
Fourth lines don’t win Stanley Cups, but Stanley Cups aren’t won without them. Perhaps they don’t deliver points, but they bring the energy that fuels the rest of the lines. On Thursday, Nordstrom, Kuraly, and Wagner brought it in a tanker truck.
“They’ve been together for a while, they have the chemistry,” said Pastrnak. “When they play like this, they are extremely strong on the puck and they create a lot of chances and turnover. They had a helluva game.”
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.