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Drawing battle lines

Posted by Danny Picard December 4, 2008 05:56 AM

From peewees to the pros, hockey teams’ offensive lines are designated by number. You have your first line, which is your best, and your fourth line, which is your worst. It’s a system every drill sergeant utilizes.

Just don’t tell that to Bruins coach Claude Julien.

“It’s something you’ve established, one, two, three, and four,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, the way our guys are playing, it’s hard to establish who’s one, two, three, and four. We’re getting scoring from every line. And what’s nice about it is that you can move guys around.”

It’s called depth, and Julien has used it to his advantage. Designated by color, the Bruins’ offense runs through drills at practice in white, yellow, gray, and red jerseys. No tint higher than the other.

But look closely, and you’ll notice something special about the spoked B outlined with gray. In routine hockey dialect, David Krejci would be considered the Bruins’ third-line center, behind Marc Savard and Patrice Bergeron. Bouncing back and forth from Providence (AHL) to Boston in his rookie season, Krejci entered his second season paired with rookie winger Blake Wheeler.

Since the start of training camp, Krejci and Wheeler have been linemates. Originally matched with Chuck Kobasew, they formed a line that combined for two goals and three assists in the first game of the season on Oct. 9. Both Wheeler and Krejci scored, with Krejci’s goal the game-winner in a 5-4 victory against Colorado. Kobasew broke his leg in that game, sidelining him for 12 games.

Eleven games into the season, Julien moved Marco Sturm to the “gray” line. It looked like a demotion, with Julien trying to light a fire under Sturm — who had only one goal and four assists — saying he had to get “more involved” and “find his game.”

Sturm scored two goals in his first game on that line (Nov. 1 against Dallas), with Krejci and Wheeler assisting on his first score. In his next seven games, Sturm totaled five goals and two assists, before suffering a concussion and sitting out the next six games.

Kobasew returned to action on Nov. 8 against Buffalo alongside center Stephane Yelle and winger Shawn Thornton. He spent five games with the “red” line, returning to his original line on Nov. 19 against Buffalo, while Sturm was scratched. In his four games reunited with Krejci and Wheeler, Kobasew had two goals and three assists.

Then Julien switched Kobasew with a snake-bitten Michael Ryder before the Nov. 28 game against the New York Islanders. Ryder had just one goal in his previous 12 games, and only three goals in 22 games this season. But Ryder found that scoring touch with his new line over the weekend. He scored twice against the Islanders and had two assists the next night against Detroit.

“It just seems that whoever you put Krejci with, that player seems to get himself going,” said Julien. “[Krejci] has done a great job, and whether it’s intentional or not, Sturm started scoring goals with him, and now they have Ryder.”

Like Sturm, Kobasew, and Ryder, Wheeler has benefited from Krejci’s relaxed, pace-controlling style. He entered Thursday’s game in Tampa Bay with eight goals, tied with Savard for second on the Bruins.

“He’s so smart,” said Wheeler. “Every time he gets the puck in the middle, I know that my job is to get open, and the minute I get open, he’s going to find me. It’s a lot of fun to be a part of when you have a guy who instinctively knows where you’re going to be, and that’s why we’re having success out there.

“We’re pretty privileged to have a lot of different guys that we can put in a lot of different spots. It was Marco Sturm before. What can you say about him? He’s an unbelievable player. Chuck Kobasew, same thing, and now Ryder.”

Krejci (7-12-19) and Wheeler combine for 31 points, and they’re tied for second on the team with a plus-12, making them anything but third-liners.

“We’re just trying to keep it simple, and just trying to put the puck on net,’’ said Krejci. “Somehow we just find a way to score goals.”

Danny Picard covers the Bruins for OT and can be reached at dpicard@globe.com

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