In the 2011 postseason, the Bruins had a great third line. Not only did it help get them out of the first round, but it helped them win the Stanley Cup. Last postseason, put plainly, they did not have a good third line.
Or, put statistically, the Bruins’ third line in 2011 scored more goals in Game 4 against the Canadiens (three; capped off by Michael Ryder’s game-winner in overtime) than the 2013 third line scored in the first three rounds of the playoffs (two goals over 16 games).
This year, the Bruins' third line of Carl Soderberg between Loui Eriksson and -- when he can play -- Chris Kelly, is two things: much, much more Swedish than it used to be and much, much better.
Boston’s third line was something of a mess for much of the lockout-shortened regular season and then into the playoffs last season. The short version: Chris Bourque played, Kelly got hurt, Rich Peverley struggled, Jaromir Jagr got promoted off the line in the playoffs, Tyler Seguin joined the line and was a ghost, Daniel Paille saw time in the finals and the line got two goals from Kelly against the Blackhawks.
When all was said and done, Peverley had a team-worst minus-8 rating in the postseason, while Kelly was just ahead of him with a minus-7. Seguin’s minus-2 was third worst [and before you get mad at the use of plus-minus, CorsiRel is used later in this piece].
This season, the Bruins should have no such problem. In fact, the third line, which rightfully was a question mark entering the season given the departures of Peverley, Jagr and Seguin in the offseason, might be the team’s biggest X-factor not currently working its way back from ACL/MCL surgery.
Here’s what we know: The Bruins have Soderberg and Eriksson ready to go, and they made up two-thirds of the best third line the B’s have had since the “KRaP” line of Kelly, Ryder and Peverley. If Kelly can play (back spasms), the B’s will have their top three lines at full strength. If not, Justin Florek will play.
The Merlot Line -- provided Daniel Paille doesn’t miss much time -- is stable as a table. The B’s know what they’ll get from it each year. Yet that third line is something they (and plenty of other teams as well; look at Pittsburgh) can’t assume will be strong each year.
As general manager Peter Chiarelli sees it, when two really good teams square off in a tightly played series, the top two lines on each team can tend to cancel each other scoring-wise, or close to it. When you have a third line can take advantage of the other team’s third line, as Kelly, Ryder and Peverley did regularly in the 2011 postseason, it can be a game-changer.
"It’s not common that a team has a real strong third line, and often in the playoffs, the margins are so thin," Chiarelli said. "The top two lines cancel each other out, so your third line becomes important. You saw that with the year we won, and you hear everyone talk so much about secondary scoring -- that’s what it is. … I’ve liked the look of that line, and it’ll be key to our success."
Eriksson was acquired to be a top-six player who, teamed with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, would make for perhaps the most defensively sound top-six line in the NHL. The three were slow to develop chemistry as all three players got off to slow starts and Reilly Smith claimed the team’s second-line right wing spot as Eriksson was recovering from his second concussion of the season.
A midseason third-line tweak ended up getting Eriksson going, and he wasn’t the only one. With Kelly out of the lineup with a fractured fibula and Ryan Spooner, who was centering the third in line Kelly’s place, sick, the B’s called on Soderberg to play his natural position after beginning the season at left wing.
Soderberg, who already had been an asset on the power play, felt more at home at center, and the addition of Eriksson to the line when he returned only strengthened the trio. When Kelly returned in late January and was moved to left wing, a third line that began the season with Kelly between Smith and Jordan Caron (Soderberg had a foot injury early on) finally took shape and took off.
With 10 goals and 27 assists for 37 points in 61 games played, Eriksson had a down season by his standards production-wise, but he produced more down the stretch and was playing his best hockey late in the season, with the team giving him looks on the top two lines to prepare him in case injuries force him to move up in the lineup.
Even though Eriksson didn’t score like he did in seasons past, he was still a very effective player when on the ice. CorsiRel measures a team’s five-on-five Corsi (number of shot attempts; the stat paints a picture of puck possession) when a player is on the ice relative to when he isn’t. Eriksson finished the regular season fourth on the B’s in CorsiRel, meaning that when he was on the ice, the Bruins had the puck. Only Bergeron's +9.7 CorsiRel (tops among NHL forwards), Marchand's +8.2 and Reilly Smith's +6.3 were better than Eriksson's +4.5 mark.
So even if Eriksson's line doesn’t score a ton, it still figures to be effective. It’s unclear who Boston’s third line will face most in the opening round against the Red Wings, as Mike Babcock has been tinkering with his lineup in recent days and says he has three sets of forward lines he can deploy. Whoever it is, the Bruins will have a chance to make a difference the way Kelly, Ryder and Peverley did three years ago.
“I think that's our strength as a team,” Soderberg said. “We have two great top lines, but if the other team has two great top lines, too, hopefully we have a little bit stronger third line. We want to help the team win some games.”