As Wednesday is an unplanned travel day for the Pittsburgh Penguins, we’re a little short on player zoom meetings to offer effusive praise for the job the Penguins fourth line centered by Teddy Blueger did in Game 2. The numbers are spectacular and the results even more important.
Did you see that wicked goal by Mathew Barzal on Tuesday night?
Did you see that extended offensive zone pressure by the New York Islanders’ top line?
No? That’s because Teddy Blueger, Brandon Tanev, and Zach Aston-Reese convincingly won the battle. The Penguins’ top line with Sidney Crosby didn’t do so bad, either. But that’s to be expected; Sidney Crosby should win most battles.
When asked about the “fourth line,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan first gave a little deke.
“I assume you mean Teddy Blueger’s line?”
Former Penguins coach Mike Johnston used to catch PHN in that little verbal trap when asking about the “second line,” as he liked to say he had two first lines. Perhaps that’s Sullivan’s way of giving a little love to his bottom-six bangers
“They help us with momentum. They’re hard to play against. They can play against anyone and bring a physical element to our overall team game,” Sullivan said. “They’ve had some offensive zone time…they’re a big part of the penalty kill, as well. I think their first couple of games here, they’ve had strong efforts…”
The New York Islanders fourth line has long been heralded as “the best fourth line in hockey.” Matt Martin, Casey Czikas, and Cal Clutterbuck provide a high level of physicality, forecheck pressure, offensive contributions, and generally have an ability to disrupt opponents.
PHN has long admired the Islanders’ “asset.”
The Crosby line has been dominant in the offensive zone. New York can’t count on their fourth line to cover Crosby the way the Penguins can point to theirs smothering Barzal.
That’s not a homer take, that’s a fact. So who has the best fourth line in hockey?
Instead of using his fourth line against the Penguins’ top dogs, New York head coach Barry Trotz tried to get his fourth line against the Penguins’ second line centered by Jeff Carter, with Kasperi Kapanen and Jared McCann.
Head coach Mike Sullivan was able to get Carter away from them often (home-ice advantage), and Freddy Gaudreau’s line played against the Islanders’ brick-built trio.
The Islanders won those battles. The Czikas line had 2/3 of all shot attempts (12-6), 75% of shots on goal (9-3), a much better expected goals-for score (.54-.16), 71% of scoring chances (5-2), and 80% of the high-danger chances (4-1).
All stats above and below courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com.
Matt Martin surely stirred things up in the second period, too. On one of the rare head-to-head shifts between the grind lines, Martin and Aston-Reese squared off after Brandon Tanev slid face-first into the Islanders net post and contacted Islanders goalie Semyon Varlamov.
That’s against the unwritten rules, don’t you know?
So, the Islanders’ fourth line clearly won their battles, though they did not score.
Pittsburgh Penguins Fourth Line:
The Pittsburgh Penguins fourth line has similarly good numbers. The Penguins fourth-liners earned 68% of the shot attempts (13-6), 65% of the shots on goal (9-5), had an expected goals-for advantage (.38-.16), 66% of scoring chances (6-3), and did not allow a high-danger chance against (2-0).
Now, consider the Penguins fourth line didn’t guard Frederick Gaudreau but Barzal and Jordan Eberle, and J-G Pageau and Kyle Palmieri.
Add the factor that Jeff Carter scored the game-winning goal against the fourth-line New York crew, we can say the Penguins clearly won this battle in Game 2.
“That’s exactly what they did–bring with energy. They’re three players that are really tough to play against, especially as a defenseman on the forecheck,” Penguins defenseman Mike Matheson said. “They all have great speed. They play a physical hard game, cycle the puck well, support each other well and just really work like crazy. And that’s really hard to play against.”
However, New York won the battle in Game 1 when Bleuger’s line was on the ice for the first New York goal and was on the wrong side of the puck for more of the game.
Playoff hockey. The team that with the better fourth line may also be the team with the better first line. Home-ice advantage will be Barry Trotz’s. Will he matchup his thundering fourth line with Crosby, or try to crush the Penguins’ second line?
Will Sullivan be able to get Blueger against Barzal’s and Pageau’s lines?
And will Brandon Tanev hit everything including the pace car?
Now that goaltending seems to have stabilized, and teams are settled in for a fight, the fourth line battle could determine the series.
Who has the best fourth line in hockey?