Trailing for the duration of Game 3, the Boston Bruins needed offense badly. But every time they fielded their footsoldier fourth line of Shawn Thornton, Greg Campbell, and Jordan Caron, it felt like we were betraying the object of the game - which is to score.
When the buzzer sounded and the game ended in a 4-2 loss to the Canadiens, the Merlot line was on the ice, giving sticks and earfuls to the Habs players. It was the first time in the game that they felt like they were in the right place at the right time.
However, even though it seemed like Claude Julien's hard-and-fast system of rolling four lines failed when the B's needed offense the most, you can't pin this loss on their perceived over usage. It's a scapegoat and an illusion.
Across Bruins Nation, fans and pundits were bemoaning Julien's apparent reluctance to go offense-first.
Okay, seriously. Five minutes left. Shorten the bench, score some goals.— StanleyCup ofChowder (@cupofchowdah) May 7, 2014
claude u might wanna stop playing the fourth line now— ryan lambert (@twolinepass) May 7, 2014
The Merlot line saw 13 shifts in the game, only four of which came in the third period. Thornton (7:24 vs 8:48), Campbell (9:25 vs. 11:04), and Caron 6:52 vs. 10:55) all notched a TOI below their season averages, and they didn't hop the boards from the seven-minute mark to the final whistle. With the exception of Daniel Briere (6:02), the Canadiens' bottom unit saw much more ice in defense of their tentative lead. Though Boston's lower-rung guys only managed a single shot, their 12 hits provided a momentum absent from the other three units.
When you look at the numbers, it becomes clear that there was nothing above average about Julien's tabbing of the fourth line.
It could be argued that the little ice time the fourth line saw came at important times in the game, but when your team is behind for the whole game, every moment is important. Your top three lines can't divvy up 20 among them - especially when those minutes are being wasted on guys who can't even hit the net. Their shifts were not throwaways.
The only goal surrendered while Campbell, et al., were one the ice was a breakaway from MTL fourth liner Dale Weise. They looked energized early on, putting on a white-knuckle performance early in the first, conjuring two of the Bruins' best scoring chances. With high-end talent like David Krejci and Zdeno Chara going totally dark on the scoreboard tonight, Julien wasn't misguided in trying to rekindle the energy.
Obviously, it looks bad when you have a pair of brawlers and a washed up first-rounder on the ice in a close game, but it's better than fielding a dogged trio of nonproductive stars. Julien went to the fourth line well only when he needed to, and microscope-wielding onlookers made every second look like a bad decision.
The fact is the Bruins got out-played up and down the ice. The Merlot line was not the problem. Neither was the Claude Julien system. In a game where almost nothing went Boston's way, that blame should be weighted more towards the top.