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Fourth-liner, and loving it

Thornton & Co. good whenever

By Brendan Hall
Globe Correspondent / December 24, 2009

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Following the morning skate yesterday at TD Garden, the Bruins’ resident chop-buster and tough guy openly wondered when his turn was coming.

After all, Shawn Thornton has been the only fourth-liner this season not to skate a shift with the top line. And considering the success of Steve Begin and Byron Bitz alongside No. 1 center Marc Savard at various points this season, perhaps it rendered a tongue-in-cheek musing from the winger.

“It’s like I’m sewn into the maroon jersey,’’ Thornton cracked, regarding the fourth-line practice sweater. “I don’t know, they keep talking about how good the fourth line’s been. Who’s the only guy who’s been on that line all year?’’

To which coach Claude Julien had a good quip of his own a few minutes later: “His turn [with the first line] will come someday when he plays in a garage league.’’

All kidding aside, amid the shuffling and reshuffling of lines this season, the one at the bottom has remained productive. Thornton is the de facto rock, but it seems whatever combination the Bruins use there these days seems to work.

“They keep doing their job,’’ Julien said. “Throughout the year, we’ve had some situations where we’ve needed more out of certain players, certain lines, etc. One thing I can tell you is no matter who’s been on the fourth line - because the fourth line is all about work ethic, and it’s about energy, and you make sure you have those kinds of players there - they’ve always done the job, and they’ve been good. That’s probably been a real consistent part of our hockey club this year.’’

The most significant change of late on the line, made before the last road trip, was the switch of Vladimir Sobotka from left wing on the second line to center on the fourth. Last night the group was clicking, with Sobotka centering Thornton on the left and Bitz on the right.

Bitz had a series of chances near the midpoint of the second period with a rush to the net, set up cleverly by Thornton, which was thwarted by Thrashers goalie Johan Hedberg. Bitz then followed half a minute later with another charge to the net, and several tries to knock the rebound past Hedberg’s pads.

The biggest play the line made, though, was connecting on the final of three Bruins goals over a span of 1:08 in the first period, which sent Ondrej Pavelec to the bench in favor of Hedberg. Matt Hunwick started the rush from the defensive zone, sending the puck up the left wing to Thornton, who saw Sobotka and sent him a saucer pass at the right post for a backhanded tip and a 3-0 lead.

Sobotka’s goal made it five points in the last five games for the fourth line. With his skating, strength on the puck, and precise positioning, he seems more comfortable at center than on the wing.

“I think for the most part we’ve been pretty good all year,’’ Thornton said. “Obviously, maybe we’re gauged by points a little bit, and we’ve got a couple the last few games and people see that, but as far as effort goes, and opportunities, I think we’ve been pretty solid all year.’’

And when he was told of Julien’s wisecrack from earlier in the day, Thornton didn’t miss a beat.

“I’m not too worried about it,’’ he said. “Maybe after that saucer pass there, who knows?’’

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