By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — When you play for the Bruins, there are a lot of legacies to live up to.
Zdeno Chara and all of the Bruins’ best defensemen have to live up to the monumental careers of Bobby Orr and Ray Bourque. Boston’s best forwards play in the ever-lurking shadows of Cam Neely.
Even if you play on the Bruins’ fourth line, you’re measured by a standard set in a glorious time in the franchise’s history because everyone still appreciates the contributions of the Merlot Line of Daniel Paille, Gregory Campbell and Shawn Thornton.
Assuming Sean Kuraly’s health cooperates, he’ll be back from a seven-game absence to center Tim Schaller and Noel Acciari on the fourth line that will start the Eastern Conference first round series against Toronto on Thursday. That line has had a Merlot-like influence on the Bruins’ dominant regular season and caused people to make comparisons to the 2011 fourth line all year.
“Yeah, we hear about it,” Schaller said. “[People] to give us a new nickname and all that stuff. But we don’t think about that too much. We just go and have fun with it and play hard and good things are happening.”
“I’ve heard about it but I didn’t know about it until this year,” Kuraly said. “It’s something that just this season I’ve heard about. It’s something cool. Obviously they were a heck of a fourth line, they contributed to a team and you see what happened with that team is obviously our ultimate goal. So if we can be in the same breath as someone that had that sort of success, I think we’re all happy about it.”
When the fourth-line regulars are in the lineup, the requisite physicality is constantly in abundance. Acciari is a heat-seeking missile whose radar is always on, and Kuraly and Schaller never met an opponent they wouldn’t try to skate through.
But what has separated the current nickname-less fourth line from the ones that tried to replace the Merlot boys over the years has been their offensive contributions and defensive prowess. After Acciari’s breakaway goal Saturday, a score so pretty he nearly had his fourth-line status revoked, he finished with 10 goals. Schaller had 12 goals (including that one that’s probably still part of Henrik Lundqvist’s nightmares) and Kuraly had eight before injury prematurely ended his regular season.
Throughout the season, they earned coach Bruce Cassidy’s trust to be on the ice in any and all situations. Despite starting in the offensive zone just around 35 percent of the time, Schaller and Kuraly were positive Corsi For players, while Acciari was close at 48 percent. They’ve blown apart the stereotypes for what fourth lines are supposed to do and how fourth-line players are supposed to perform.
“They’re very accountable, that line has scored close to 30 goals,” general manager Don Sweeney said. “It’s been a big part of our identity, our club from top to bottom. It has taken away a bit of the ice time as we described that is taxing against some of the top players. It’s allowed them some offensive zone starts, some situations that we’re trying to be cognizant of. … I think that they’ve really had a big impact this year.”
It has to be difficult to find players, especially ones on the cusp of their primes, who will accept and excel in the fourth-line role. Sweeney described how the Bruins tried to identify players that first and foremost could help out on the penalty kill. All three Bruins fourth-liners have been cogs in the Bruins’ third-ranked penalty kill. Building off that, they’ve made sure to play with a defense-first attitude, which in the tradition of the Merlot Line has led them to create offense off their strong defense and often skate without having to defend because they’re able to hem opponents in their own zone.
In typical fourth-line fashion, Kuraly is humble about what his trio has accomplished.
“It’s a lot easier on a line like ours when you know you’re other lines are going to score, and we do, and we have the trust of the other lines,” he said. “It puts us in a really good spot to not have to press. So a lot of that credit really goes to the other lines that are really doing their job. It kind of all falls into place.”
There’s a mentality Schaller, Kuraly and Acciari have that Sweeney and his staff may or may not have been able to identify before they signed Schaller and Acciari as free agents and traded for Kuraly. All three seem to have been brought in at the right point of their careers, a time when they’re trying to make a name for themselves. No one aspires to be a fourth-liner but, as Sweeney said, it’s not about putting “players in a box.” They’re on the fourth line now and there could be bigger roles with Boston or elsewhere for Acciari (26), Schaller (27) and Kuraly (25) when they enter their primes.
As two undrafted free agents (Acciari, Schaller) and a fifth-round pick (Kuraly), all three had to claw for attention and their shot at the big time. They’ve applied that mentality to making sure they’re outworking even the most talented of opponents and putting Cassidy in a position where he might have to sit a more skilled player in the postseason in order to keep the fourth line together.
In an NHL where the role and skill set for fourth lines has evolved beyond the old tough-guy persona, the Bruins’ fourth line has set a standard that might not be as colorful but could be as impactful while the Bruins pursue their first Stanley Cup since the Merlot Line celebrated on that famous night in June 2011.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.