By: Jack McCarthy | Follow Me On Twitter @73johnnymac
The Boston Bruins skated off the ice at Scotiabank Arena last night, left to lick their wounds and contemplate what it will take to recapture the momentum in their best-of-7 opening round playoff series with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Much of the attention following the loss was focused on the lack of production from the top-line trio, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak. Having opened up last year’s opening round series with a combined 20 points in the first two games at TD Garden, the line has only managed to amass a combined 6 points through three games in the series.
With much of the fan base and media speculating that the answer is now to split up the top line by moving Pastrnak down to David Krejci’s right wing, a close look at some of the indicators through three games suggests the Bruins true woes may be found a lot further down the lineup. One of the Bruins strengths in the regular season was the relatively effective play of its fourth line, a line that when healthy features Sean Kuraly centering Noel Acciari and Chris Wagner. Kuraly went down with a hand injury suffered on a blocked shot in a game against the New Jersey Devils on March 21st. The Bruins had indicated that Kuraly was expected to miss at least 4 weeks with the injury.
As the Bruins made their way through the regular season and skated to the second best record in the Eastern Conference, they were buoyed by the solid play of their fourth line. Often sent out to match up against the opposition’s top line, the Kuraly line has proven particularly effective at hemming opposing teams into their own zone, being strong on the puck and providing valuable wear and tear on opposing defense corps. In turn, by spending their shifts 200 feet from their own goal, despite often starting in the defensive zone, they were effective in neutralizing opposing scoring threats while creating favorable matchups for the Bergeron line.
Absolutely no coincidence that @NHLBruins having better results with their 4th line playing like this. They’re so important to the team
— Billy Jaffe (@BJaffe) April 8, 2018
With Kuraly currently sidelined, that line now finds Acciari centering Wagner and Joakim Nordstrom. Through three games of the current series against Toronto, the play and effectiveness of the so-called fourth line have been highly effective in Boston’s Game 2 win and far from it in their two losses.
One indicator of a player’s effectiveness (I won’t debate the merits of the metric here, but it is generally accepted as a reasonable measure despite some limitations) is his Shot Attempts Percentage (SAT%, also known as Corsi). The SAT% is the percentage of shot attempts that the team takes out of total shot attempts. The calculation of SAT% = SAT For/(SAT For + SAT Against). As a general indicator players are looking to be above the 50% mark in this metric, considered to be above average. As mentioned there are limitations but generally speaking, the indicator is reliable.
A look at this analytic through three games in the series tells an interesting story about the Bruins fourth line.
(Stats courtesy of hockey-reference.com and NHL.com)
Nordstrom’s regular season SAT% is slightly higher than that of Acciari, Wagner, and Kuraly and this is attributable to his having played further up the line up for much of the season and a higher percentage of offensive zone starts. Nordstrom starts in the offensive zone for 49.17% of draws compared to the others taking only about one-third of their draws in the offensive zone, averaging 34.51% between them. Starting shifts in the offensive zone gives a greater chance of accumulating shot attempts for, hence their effect on this statistic.
So What Does It All Say?
In a nutshell, the Bruins success in Game 2 was in direct correlation with the effectiveness of the fourth line. Coach Cassidy’s decision to start them against the Tavares, Marner, Hyman line had Maple Leafs Coach Mike Babcock pulling his line from the ice in the opening seconds and setting a tone that would have the game played on the Bruins’ terms all night. The Corsi numbers for the Boston’s fourth liners was off the charts in Game 2, Acciari at 64.3, Wagner at a mind-boggling 73.9, and Nordstrom at an above average 53.6. As a result, the Bruins exerted pressure on the Maple Leafs defense all game long, forced turnovers, and forced their best players to play far more in their defensive zone than they would prefer. By playing with the lead most of the night, all three players were able to log minutes in line with their regular season average.
“I watched Blaine Lacher get it back in 94…It really means a lot to me.”
— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) March 30, 2019
In Boston’s two losses in this series, however, the fancy stats are far less glamorous for the fourth line. In Game 1, Acciari was at 36.4, Wagner at 42.3 and Nordstrom at 43.5. The result as we all know was a game played very much on Toronto’s terms. The Maple Leafs were able to overcome an early deficit to play with the lead most of the night and used their highly publicized speed to create several breakaways and odd-man rushes that kept the Bruins chasing the game most of the night.
In game three, the effectiveness of the fourth line was even worse. Acciari led the line with a SAT% of 30.4, Wagner was 27.6, and Nordstrom was 22.7. Those numbers are simply not going to get the job done. If the Bruins are going to be successful, I would argue that the key is not going to be breaking up the top line. Rather, they need a more effective contribution from the bottom of their forward group. If the fourth line can re-establish their identity as a hard-working, effective, forechecking group and force the Maple Leafs back into their own zone, effectively helping tilt the ice, the Bruins are going to be just fine in this series. The middle forward lines have been effective thus far, and you have to feel that the top line is not going to be held in check much longer, they are simply too good.
A return to the line-up of Sean Kuraly would go a long way to getting the fourth line back on track. Kuraly combines speed and strength and a bull-like tenacity to hunt the puck and contain it. His energy is infectious and is arguably what has been lacking on the fourth unit in the two losses against Toronto. If the Bruins are to regain momentum and bring this series back to Boston on even terms, the fourth line needs to lift. It is unknown when Kuraly may return to the line-up, but he will unquestionably be a welcome addition when he does. In the meantime, the Bruins are looking for an effort reminiscent of the one provided in Game 2. Anything less and the return of Kuraly to the fold may be too little, too late.