Shawn Thornton, Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille make up the NHL's best fourth line, and the group will have to be at its best while other parts of the Bruins' lineup gets figured out.
The boxscore just says that Shawn Thornton scored a goal on Thursday night. The Bruins' enforcer received a lucky bounce and stuffed the puck into an open net before Panthers' goaltender Scott Clemmensen recovered. The tally doubled the Bruins lead to 3-1 early in the third period of an eventual 4-1 win.
The fortunate bounce or two is part of hockey. Often, the break happens, and it's dismissed as solely the residue of fortune. The moments just before are ignored just as other smaller parts of the game so often are. Thornton's goal was luck, yes, but the handful of plays before the goal typify the Bruins fourth line, a group known as the Merlot Line for the purplely-red sweaters it dons for practice.
For most of the last three seasons, Thornton has joined center Gregory Campbell and winger Daniel Paille on this group. Like other units in the Bruins' lineup, coach Claude Julien will break it up from time to time, only to return to his trusted groupings. At the moment, the Bruins fourth line looks less like the collection of misfits and bit players that regularly occupy the last portion of a line chart and more like an invaluable piece of one of the NHL's best teams . With the lack of production from the Bruins' third line and Chris Kelly's injury, the role of Merlot in the next few weeks will expand.
At this point, no one really knows what the third line will look like by the time the playoffs roll around. Kelly's broken tibia likely means he won't be skating for the rest of the regular season at least. Rich Peverley's name keeps finding its way into trade rumors and few actually believed Chris Bourque or Jay Pandolfo were the long-term solution at the third-line left wing spot. Until Julien and general Peter Chiarelli find the answer, the lowest of the bottom six will be even more important than it already is.
Paille, Campbell and Thornton each serve a purpose beyond their designation on even-strength play. Paille and Campbell are two of the Bruins' most trusted penalty killers, whereas Thornton, of course, is charged with punching opponents who get out of line.
For Thornton, though, these injury issues should mean a little less glove-dropping in the next few weeks. With Kelly, another of the Bruins' best penalty-killers, out, Thornton's perennially on-the-edge game needs to take a backseat to his work on the forecheck. No matter how successful the Bruins are down a man, it's never a favorable situation. Kelly's indefinite absence makes it even more important that Thornton avoid any antics that handicap his club.
It's difficult, of course, for a man who's become one of the game's most feared and respected fighters to change his behavior entirely. Regardless, it's just not in the club's best interest for a trusted player to sit down for five minutes given the recent spat of injuries.
In the last four games, Thornton, Campbell and Paille have accounted for four goals and four assists. Chiarelli, Julien and most in the organization consider this group to be the best fourth line in the NHL. Each player seems to take pride in this designation, and they're clearly an asset for the team. The versatility of the group makes its members so valuable and effective alongside each other. Until the third line figures itself out -- and the "first" line of David Krejci, Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton starts scoring -- Merlot needs to be more than the club's sandpaper. It's served that purpose along with chipping in some timely offense of late.
Thornton's goal, the lucky one, offered a look into the group's ability to do more than tire opponents. On a Florida breakout, all three forwards took away passing lanes and forced a bad pass that Dougie Hamilton broke up. Campbell picked up the loose puck and found Paille entering the zone. Thornton got open and quickly fired on net after a lovely pass from Paille. The rest was a matter of luck, but the chance came from the disciplined positioning of all three forwards and swarming puck movement once they gained possession.
Expecting anything beyond a couple extra goals a week is foolish, but Merlot is providing exactly that at the moment. There are several questions and uncertainties about the Bruins forwards at the moment. Kelly's injury was only the latest. Despite these issues, the wins keep coming for the club. Coughing up three third-period leads in the last two weeks in worrisome -- as is the schedule the rest of the way.
It's time like these that make a club's depth stand out. Few teams can roll a bottom grouping like the Bruins can, and the last handful of games -- save for the collapse in Pittsburgh -- have illustrated that well. If the 2013 season is going to be a success for the Bruins, the rest of the club will likely find itself raising a glass -- or Cup -- to its collection of grinders forever decked in Merlot.