Blueshirts Fourth Line Putting In More Than Just Ice-Time

The fourth line. The very name implies that it is the fourth-best line, or fourth most important line.

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To a point, both are true. The other three lines get more ice time, generally have more skill, usually have guys making more money and those who are more difficult to replace. The other three lines, in order, are expected to produce more offense.

And if the other three lines aren’t doing their jobs, it won’t much matter how good or bad the fourth line is.

Nevertheless, the fourth line is a critical piece, charged with important and varied duties. And when a fourth line’s responsibilities and contributions are most appreciated is when you don’t have a very good one.

I’ve said this here before, but with the Rangers, a good, productive fourth line is arguably more essential. Under coach Alain Vigneault, now in his fifth season, the Rangers play a system that requires four lines going – a system that relies on speed and pace, with short shifts, resulting in fresh top-sixers.

More to the point, the Rangers have scored goals with the best teams in the NHL the last few seasons – including this one, in which they are tied with Washington and ahead of Pittsburgh – despite not having the top-end skill among their forwards.

There is no disrespect intended in that thought, but honestly, if the NHL were going to the Olympics in 2018 (it isn’t), how many Rangers forwards would be representing Canada or the United States?

So they scored with depth, and that means contributions from everybody. We saw that first-hand Wednesday in a 4-1 win over Anaheim, the Rangers’ third victory in a row (all of them against bigger, heavier teams).

That one was powered by David Desharnais’ two setups for goals by Paul Carey, after Desharnais was demoted out of necessity with the return of No. 1 center Mika Zibanejad.

“That line played well for us,” Vigneault said after the game. “They played the way we expected them to play. They had a good North-South game, they spent some good quality minutes in the other team’s end creating some opportunities and they were able to capitalize on a few.”

On that night, Jimmy Vesey, who projects to be a top-nine, if not top-six forward at some point in his young career, played on the fourth line as he often has this season. Highly-skilled Pavel Buchnevich has spent time there, though he earned his promotion to Zibanejad’s line. Jesper Fast, who plays up and down the lineup as needed, has played there. Boo Nieves was doing just fine in the middle when Desharnais was moved up.

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So Vigneault has employed players of different abilities on that line, successfully and with offensive results to boot, even if the Rangers’ fourth line isn’t prototypical. In most cases, teams’ fourth lines are made up of bangers, tough guys (a.k.a. fighters, a nearly-extinct group), and defensive-minded forwards. Often they are faceoff or power-play specialists, or penalty killers as well.

“When we win,” Vigneault said, “it’s team-oriented. It’s because the contributions are from throughout the lineup, whether it be a blocked shot, whether it be making an offensive play, whether it be a big save from Hank (Henrik Lundqvist). You look at where our minutes are spread out; it’s a team thing and that’s how we’re going to continue to roll.”

All fourth lines are expected to make opposing defensemen turn, make them play behind the icing line or below the faceoff dots. They are expected to create momentum with hard forechecking shifts, and to not give up much in the other end, mostly by not spending much time there.

They are expected to fulfill the role of lead-protectors in the third period – the Rangers are 13-0 when leading after two – and often a fourth-liner will be elevated to a higher line, replacing a more offensive teammate, when playing with a late lead.

It’s a formula for success, and the Rangers are 10-3-1 in their last 14 games heading into Thursday’s game against the Devils in Newark, while going 16-5-1 in their last 22.

“I think we know our role, that we are supposed to bring energy, keep pucks out, and eat up some tough minutes out there,” Carey said after his first NHL two-goal game.

“But at the same time, that doesn’t change the fact that we all want to score and want to make plays.”

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