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Deep thinking

Using all four lines will be the Bruins' strategy for the postseason

By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / April 11, 2012
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WILMINGTON - David Krejci, the Bruins’ No. 1 center last year, led all 2010-11 NHL players in postseason scoring (12-11-23). Patrice Bergeron and wingers Brad Marchand and Mark Recchi combined to form the club’s best two-way threesome.

The third line made its loudest contributions in the opening round, when Michael Ryder made a sparkling glove save on Tomas Plekanec and Chris Kelly punched in a 3-3-6 series against the Canadiens.

Nobody has forgotten about the fourth line. In Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, the Canucks pushed their hardest in the first period. In response, Daniel Paille, Gregory Campbell, and Shawn Thornton were at their hostile best, holding the fort until the rest of their boys got their games in gear.

Tim Thomas was dynamite in goal. Defensemen Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg placed opponents on lockdown.

But a critical component of the Bruins’ Cup run was their four-line approach and how each unit, based on its identity, executed its tasks.

A year later, some of the faces have changed. The philosophy remains the same. All four lines must be rolling and in synch if the Bruins wish to dispatch the Capitals in the first round, which begins Thursday at TD Garden.

“Our team is built a certain way where we have to play a certain style,’’ coach Claude Julien said. “That’s not about to change. That’s what allowed us to win last year.

“Our scoring is spread out. So we need everybody going. We like to grind things out. When we do that, we’re at our best.’’

Julien’s four-line system is born of necessity. There are teams that can lean heavily on star forwards. This season, New Jersey’s Ilya Kovalchuk led all NHL forwards by averaging 24:26 of ice time per game. Tampa Bay’s Martin St. Louis (22:37) and Steven Stamkos (22:01) weren’t far behind.

In comparison, Bergeron led all Boston forwards with 18:34 of action per game, five-plus minutes off Kovalchuk’s pace. Boston’s forwards can’t assume as much ice time as others because Julien insists they work harder than most.

The heart of Julien’s collapsing-zone defensive system is to eliminate scoring chances from in front of the net. To carry out that task, wingers must not only pressure point shooters, they must collapse into the slot. Centers are often the last to leave the defensive zone because of their multiple checking responsibilities. Pivots must be in position down low to receive the first outlet pass from defensemen, swing the other way, and initiate the rush.

No center is more efficient in that than Bergeron. To start the series, Bergeron will most likely be matched against Alex Ovechkin, Brooks Laich, and Troy Brouwer, Washington’s first-line forwards. Bergeron’s primary task will be defense. But given the speed and skill of wingmen Tyler Seguin (29 goals) and Marchand (28), Bergeron will look to trigger the counterattack.

“Bergy’s line has been good. This last game, they were good, and they’re going to be counted on to score a little more this year,’’ said general manager Peter Chiarelli, referring to Bergeron’s three-assist performance in the regular-season finale against Buffalo. “When Rex was on that line, they obviously contributed scoring-wise, too.’’

Bergeron and Marchand have big-time playoff reputations. Not so for Seguin. Last year, the rookie appeared in only 13 playoff games. In the final, Seguin rode with Kelly and Ryder on the third line, where the Bruins could hide him from dangerous matchups. On Thursday, as he has for most of the season, Seguin will be doing battle with the big boys.

“I don’t think anything tells us that he’s ready,’’ said Julien. “I think that’s the beauty of it. He still has to go out there and show it and prove it.

“That doesn’t mean we don’t believe he has it. We have the confidence that he has it. It’s up to him to go out and show it.

“He’s grown and matured a lot this year. He still has a lot of growth in him to become a more potent and better player. That speaks volumes for him, because he led our team in scoring this year.’’

Julien knows what to expect from Bergeron’s line, which has been the most consistent trio he’s had. There are more questions about the other skilled line, Krejci between Milan Lucic and Rich Peverley.

When they’re skating hard, there is no better 1-2 punch on the team than Lucic and Krejci. There are few defensemen who can negate Lucic’s straight-line speed. Krejci is the team’s most offensive-minded center.

Washington coach Dale Hunter will most likely match Karl Alzner and John Carlson against Bergeron’s line. Ex-Bruin defenseman Dennis Wideman, partnered with either Jeff Schultz or Dmitry Orlov, could be assigned to play against Krejci’s line.

“I think we’re at our best when we try to push the pace, play with the puck, and we’re playing in the offensive zone,’’ Lucic said. “Having those two guys - guys who can make plays and have good shots - helps me big-time.

“As a line, we want to push the pace, play physical, play with the puck, and do whatever we can to be in the offensive zone the majority of the time.’’

The question mark is Peverley. For the last two years, the line was at its best with Nathan Horton riding on the right side. Horton (concussion) is most likely done for the year. Peverley missed more than a month because of a sprained right knee.

In eight games since returning from the injury, Peverley had two goals and two assists. His legs look fine, but his offensive touch remains elusive.

“Pevs still has a ways to go, I think,’’ Julien said. “He’s certainly not at the top of his game right now. We want him to continue to progress. He’s certainly aware of that, because I think that’s going to be a big key to our success going forward.

“That line is a good line when Pevs is at the top of his game. We obviously don’t expect him to come back - having been out for six weeks - and be at the top of his game. But we want to make sure he continues to progress.’’

The Bruins know what the fourth line will bring: pace, physicality, and defensive awareness. Jordan Caron has been practicing on the fourth line the last two days, but he will likely be the healthy scratch.

“Our job every day is to come to the rink and compete,’’ Campbell said. “We have to be a physical line, a high-energy line. In the playoffs, it’s important to utilize that depth and have all four lines contributing. Not necessarily contributing in the same way, but doing something to help the team win.’’

The Bruins aren’t as confident in their projections for the third line. At the end of the regular season, Kelly, Benoit Pouliot, and Brian Rolston had three-zone chemistry. They could be seeing shifts against Washington’s bottom-six forwards and No. 3 defensive pairing. It was in such matchups that last year’s third line (mostly Kelly between Peverley and Ryder) thrived.

“The third line has some big shoes to fill from last year,’’ Chiarelli acknowledged. “We had a strong third line. But they’ve played well.’’

Four lines. Thomas. Chara and Seidenberg. Get used to it.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.

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