It is hard to imagine that the Boston Bruins would have gone to game seven of the Stanley Cup Finals if not for the somewhat Herculean efforts of the bottom six and Tuukka Rask.
With the top two lines faltering during much of the 2019 playoff run, fourth-line center Sean Kuraly did what he has come to be known for doing so well: stepping up in the most clutch of situations. Regardless of which combination of Chris Wagner, Joakim Nordstrom and Noel Acciari were on his wings on any given night, the entire fourth line played a huge role in the team's success.
Five months later, the story has changed. Acciari is gone, signing as a free agent with the Florida Panthers during the offseason. Nordstrom has already missed a significant chunk of the still-young season with an injury and subsequent infection issues.
That has left Kuraly and Wagner looking over at a number of different linemates. As a result, the line has struggled to find its identify and has looked nothing like the dynamic trio fans, and coaches, have come to expect.
In Tuesday and Thursday's games against the New Jersey Devils and the Buffalo Sabres, Nordstrom, Kuraly and Wagner looked to be getting some of their mojo back. Although the line did not score, Kuraly and his mates were controlling the puck and creating opportunities.
In addition, Wagner fired up the TD Garden faithful and the team after an overall horrid start Thursday. He jumped into a scrum mid-game and emerged with a decided win from an ensuing scrap along the boards.
However, things did not go nearly as well in Saturday's overtime win against the Minnesota Wild. With center Par Lindholm nursing a nasty cut in his wrist, and Brett Ritchie returning from a flare up of an infection, head coach Bruce Cassidy chose to mix up the lines a bit. Cassidy moved Wagner up to the second-line right wing position to start the game, with Ritchie slotting in on Kuraly's right wing.
The results were less than stellar. Kuraly, Nordstrom and Ritchie played just over 10 minutes each. Nordstrom and Kuraly each finished the game with a minus-one rating, and each attempted just one shot. Ritchie earned an assist and a plus-one rating when the lines were shuffled during the game. Wagner, who rotated between the second and fourth lines, only saw 9:47 time on ice with a minus-one rating and no shots.
Injuries have definitely played a significant role in the fourth line's slow start. When Kuraly, Nordstrom and Wagner finally strung several games in a row together as a unit, the line's play started to improve. There is no reason to believe this line will not return to form when that old familiar chemistry is allowed to develop once again.
There is also a real possibility that Wagner, and Kuraly especially, miss the hard-hitting contributions from Acciari. Kuraly relied on Acciari the last two seasons to keep the other team's defenders in check and open up the ice for his linemates. Wagner plays a similar role, but there is bound to be an adjustment period.
Above all else, though, history dictates that there is no reason to panic, or even worry, about the fourth line's sluggish start. It has taken this line until after Thanksgiving to really get up to speed each of the last two seasons. This year is no different.
One thing is for sure: this line is too talented to keep down for long. Once they do get rolling, the Bruins should once again have one of the best fourth lines in the National Hockey League.