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What Has Made The Bruins 4th Line So Successful?

It’s been a year of mixing and matching for Bruce Cassidy. Between injuries, major holes in the lineup, and players simply under performing, he’s been hard pressed to find line combinations that work, and consistently score goals. We all know what they have in the top line of Brad Marchand – Patrice Bergeron – David Pastrnak, but the bottom 9 has pretty much been spin the wheel and put the three guys who come up first together.

But now, Cassidy has found another line that works. Say hello to Chris Wagner, Sean Kuraly, and Noel Acciari.

It’s not foreign to these guys to see NHL success. Kuraly and Acciari were good alongside Tim Schaller last season, but Chris Wagner coming in was certainly considered a downgrade in the summer considering Wagner had not had an effective NHL career up to this season. Acciari also had a terrible start to the year, producing effectively nothing offensively and was a healthy scratch for 7 games this season, but he, too has found the form that he had when he scored 10 goals last season. And after failing in his short trial at third line center, Sean Kuraly has found offensive fire, driving the line with 9 points in his last 15 games, including primary points on all 3 goals in Toronto on Saturday.

So what has made this unlikely trio so successful?

As with any line, trust leads to confidence, and confidence is critical. Cassidy has found trust in this line, starting them at the beginning of every period (that begins at 5 on 5) as of late and often putting them out there immediately following a Bruins goal. Wagner has played over 12 minutes in each of his last 8 games, and over 14 in 6 of them. Acciari has played 12 plus minutes in 7 of the 8 including at least 14:00 in 3 of them, and Kuraly hasn’t logged under 12 minutes since December 9th. In fact, Kuraly’s 13:56 on Monday night vs Montreal was the first time he’d played under 14 minutes since December 27th: increasing ice time for an increasingly important member of this team. These are not insignificant ice time numbers, especially for a 4th line. The trust Cassidy has shown in them seems to have made an impact. They know their role, and they do it well.

They’re controlling the play when they’re on the ice. Having played 210:43 together this season, they have a 51.72 CF% and 56.39 FF% (unblocked shot attempts). This is more significant than it looks on paper considering they rarely start a shift in the offensive zone, with just 45 o-zone starts this season compared to 85 in the neutral zone and 84 in the defensive zone. They’re getting the puck out of their zone, getting it deep, and using their energy to create chances.

Here’s a shift from January 3rd against Calgary, the top team in the west, where the line played the more than any other game this season. Nothing particularly noteworthy takes place here, but it’s a microcosm of what has been working for them. The shift starts following a Brad Marchand goal to make it 3-2 Bruins, with the Flames initially gaining possession, but after a neutral zone feed and step up by Zdeno Chara, Acciari to covers back and picks off the centering pass as Brandon Carlo forces the turnover. Acciari controls, passes it to Chara who moves it up and is deflected deep by Wagner. The key is that they don’t let the Flames get a clean breakout after the dump in, leading to another turnover. Chara moves it off the glass to Wagner who makes an indirect pass to Kuraly for the controlled zone entry, who then feeds Wagner back in the slot for a scoring chance. It’s nothing special, but that’s exactly what you are looking for following a goal: sustain pressure and don’t allow the opponent a chance to answer.

Here’s another play, this time leading to Sean Kuraly’s game winning goal in the Winter Classic. Joakim Nordstrom is on here instead of Noel Acciari, but it holds the same meaning. Kuraly wins the defensive zone faceoff to Matt Grzelcyk, who skates it up before getting it to Wagner, who gains the red line and dumps it in, hard enough for Kuraly to make a play on it in the opposite corner. Chicago’s Brent Seabrook throws it up the wall, and Grzelcyk can keep it in the zone temporarily, but it’s once again Kuraly who keeps the play alive after winning a battle against Andreas Martinsen on the half wall and wraps it around to the other corner. Wagner lays a big hit on Gustav Forsling, allowing Kevan Miller to pinch down from the point and make a play on the puck back to Nordstrom, covering for him at the point. Nordstrom gets it to Grzelcyk whose shot hits off Wagner providing traffic in front and deflects right to Kuraly for the goal. It’s a complete shift by all five guys on the ice starting in their own zone, but it’s two critical battles won by Kuraly and Wagner and traffic in front that leads to a big goal.

Courtesy of Micah Blake McCurdy @InneffectiveMath and hockeyviz.com

Here are shot maps of the trio’s offensive zone impact, with the red areas signifying high shot quantity and blue signifying low shot quantity. You’ll see threat, a metric created by McCurdy that he defines as the the weighted sum of the shot rates in the graph times league average shooting percentage from the given spots. Acciari has been below average offensively this season, not surprising given his offensive numbers and poor start to the season overall, but Kuraly and Wagner have done a good job of getting high danger opportunities from the slot. Specifically with Wagner, there is a high number of shots from the point, which shows that his line his getting deflections and rebounds generated by shots from the point. With Wagner at a +3% threat and Kuraly at +4%, it shows that they generate goals three and four percent faster than league average if they are league average shooters against league average goalies, as defined by McCurdy.

Courtesy of Micah Blake McCurdy @InneffectiveMath and hockeyviz.com

Their defensive zone shot maps are all excellent and where they thrive. He hasn’t been good on offense, but Acciari has kept the puck out of the Bruins net front very well this season. A -11% threat is very good, and what you need out of a 4th liner not creating much offense. Wagner and Kuraly are similar once again, with shots staying out of the net front area, but they’re allowing a decent quantity of shots in the high shot. They’ve minimized shots from the point as well, which is good, but the top of the zone is the least dangerous spot to shoot from. Still, their threat is well into the negatives, suggesting a good defensive 4th line, which is obviously essential to success for a line that starts many of their shifts in the defensive zone.

The whole “be physical, get traffic, get pucks deep” cliche has been well over used by every hockey player ever, but it’s exactly what has made the Bruins 4th line successful. Effective forechecks, disrupting opponent’s breakouts, simple defensive zone play to get it out and the puck going the other way, and winning battles in the offensive zone is their bread and butter to create energy for the Bruins, and setting the table for the other three lines to score goals. They aren’t talented enough offensively to score a lot of goals which is why their on-ice shooting percentage of 3.36% is low, but not exactly surprising. They can create the chances, but they aren’t going to finish a lot. That’s ok when setting up offensive zone draws and sustained pressure for other lines, including the best line in the league.

Having a 4th line a coach can trust is important for a good team to take pressure off of the other 3 lines, especially when that 4th line can be effective and set the table for those lines. All 3 of Acciari, Wagner, and Kuraly are penalty killers for Cassidy and are more than guys who play under 10 minutes a night to fill a roster spot. It’s important, and it’s going to continue to be important down the stretch.

Now, if we can just figure out that second line…

Featured imagine from Barry Chin, Boston Globe. All data from Micah Blake McCurdy and Natural Stat Trick .

Follow me on twitter @jIabruins

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