Lance Bouma

Fourth line adding a little of everything, including goals, for Blackhawks

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USA TODAY

Fourth line adding a little of everything, including goals, for Blackhawks

They know their role, what they have to do every time they’re on the ice. Fourth liners are out there to bring energy, to bring a physical presence, the sandpaper, the grit, all those familiar terms.

As for what fourth liners want to do? Well with that, they’re like every other hockey player.

“You know, we all play this game for one reason and that’s to score goals,” Tommy Wingels said recently. “Whether you’re a five-goal scorer or a 50-goal scorer, you go out there wanting to score a goal every shift. that being said, are we going to do that? No. But we’re certainly going to try every shift.”

For Wingels, Lance Bouma and John Hayden, who have comprised the Blackhawks’ fourth line for most of this season, the trying has yielded some good results lately. All three have scored in recent games; Wingels and Bouma provided the goals in the Blackhawks’ 3-2 loss to Nashville on Tuesday night, with Wingels nearly tying the game late.

When the Blackhawks were experimenting with different line combinations during their scoring drought, the fourth line remained intact. That’s mainly because those three serve a certain purpose but it’s also because it’s been consistent. Bouma, in and out of the Calgary Flames’ lineup the last two seasons due to injury or lack of production, has found a steady role here. Wingels was expected to play mainly wing but has found his niche at center. Hayden brings skill and the physical element, mixing it up a few times this season.

It didn’t take long for the three to mesh and get familiar with each other’s tendencies.

“We played with each other for most of the year so we know where everyone’s going to be on the ice. And it’s a good combination,” Bouma said. “We have a good mixture on the line. We’re all gritty guys, we all want the puck and are hungry on it. If we continue to play like that we’ll have some success.”

The fourth liners know their role: bring the energy, the grit, the physical presence, all of that. But goal scoring is never frowned upon, and those three have brought that, too.

“It’s a lot of different things we try to do. We try to be physical, we try to draw penalties, we try to bring momentum in our favor, we try to play well defensively,” Wingels said. “It’s just doing anything we can to help this team win.”

Five takeaways from Blackhawks 4-1 win over Panthers: Much-needed offensive breakout for Jonathan Toews

Five takeaways from Blackhawks 4-1 win over Panthers: Much-needed offensive breakout for Jonathan Toews

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks’ 4-1 win over the Florida Panthers on Saturday night:
 
1. Another strong start.

The Blackhawks had arguably their best first period since Opening Night on Wednesday in Tampa Bay when they scored a pair of goals and killed off three penalties, but they topped that against the Panthers.

The Blackhawks registered 30 shot attempts (21 on goal), allowed only nine attempts (seven on goal) and led in the even-strength scoring chances department 13-4. White jerseys were flying everywhere.

John Hayden and Brandon Saad both buried their scoring chances at the doorstep, and helped the Blackhawks take a 2-0 lead into the second period.

Chicago now has 24 first-period goals this season, which ranks fourth in the league.

2. Saad-Toews-Panik line dominates.

Of the 30 shot attempts the Blackhawks compiled in the first period, the top line of Saad, Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik combined for more than half of them. In fact, the trio was on the ice for 19 shot attempts for and zero against in their first six shifts, all of which were at even strength.

Saad had seven of the team's 21 shots on goal in the period, which alone matched his season-high going into the matchup. The last Blackhawks player to record seven shots on goal in a period was Dustin Byfuglien on Feb. 6, 2008 against Edmonton.

Saad was rewarded with a goal, just his second in his last 16 games, when he slammed home a Toews pass. Saad also had an assist and finished with eight shots on goal.

3. Kaner's feeling it.

Look out, folks. Here comes the 2016 Hart Trophy winner.

Patrick Kane has four goals in his last five games, including three in his last two, after going seven straight games without one. With seemingly no room, Kane found a hole top shelf snapped a shot past Roberto Luongo's left shoulder to put the Blackhawks in front 3-1 less than six minutes after the Panthers had cut their lead in half 1:06 into the second period.

It really helped squash any type of momentum for the Panthers, who outshot the Blackhawks 19-10 in the middle frame.

Kane also extended his point streak to six games, where he has four assists to go along with his four goals over that span.

4. So is The Captain?

Both of the Blackhawks' top weapons are starting to heat up. One of them already has.

Toews got off to a hot start when he had six points (three goals, three assists) in his first six games, but slowed down after he accumulated only seven points (two goals, five assists) in his next 16.

Well, that changed Saturday when he tallied a goal and two assists for his first three-point outing of the season. His goal was fluky, but one that certainly took terrific hand-eye coordination.

Hey, you take them any way you can get them, especially during a drought. The Blackhawks improved to 4-1-1 when their captain scores a goal this season.

If he gets going offensively on a consistent basis, the rest of the lineup will too because it simply takes pressure off the other three lines. Toews sets the tone.

5. Fourth line stays reliable.

If there's one line that's been consistent throughout the majority of the season, it's the Blackhawks' fourth consisting of Lance Bouma, Tommy Wingels and Hayden. 

The trio turned in another solid effort, combining for eight shot attempts (seven on goal), three hits and also teamed up to score the game's first goal (Hayden, assisted by Bouma and Wingels), as mentioned above.

Bouma had another point, and increased in his point total to eight (one goal, seven assists) in seven career games against the Panthers.

It's got to be encouraging for Joel Quenneville that he can rely on his fourth line to play third-line minutes, and in any role, while he continues to tinker and figure out his top nine in an effort to get more consistency across the board. Although he hasn't gone to the blender much lately, which is a great sign because it means the Blackhawks are piling up wins.

Blackhawks offense sputtering? Break out the line blender

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AP

Blackhawks offense sputtering? Break out the line blender

When the Blackhawks pummeled the Pittsburgh Penguins 10-1 on Oct. 5 a very optimistic, albeit misguided, phrase was bandied about in certain circles.

“This was a statement game!”

Sure, if you’re super positive that’s one way to go but it was presumptuous. That one game was an anomaly. It was one big, beautiful anomaly for the Blackhawks, who were facing a team that was not only likely tired from two consecutive Stanley Cup runs but also tired from a game the previous night. But it was an anomaly nonetheless.

Fast forward to Tuesday night, when the Blackhawks were the latest to fall to the upstart expansion Vegas Golden Knights. It was the latest in a series of games in which the Blackhawks’ offense has sputtered; asked by The Athletic’s Scott Powers if it’s time to consider different lines, coach Joel Quenneville said, “it’s definitely something we can look at.”

If the line blender is utilized at Thursday’s practice it won’t be a surprise. In their first two games the Blackhawks scored 15 goals (7.5 per game); again, that wonky first game skews everything. The Blackhawks’ offense has since come back to earth, recording 19 goals in their last eight games (2.375 per game). The Blackhawks’ best line over the last two games has been the fourth line. Lance Bouma, Tommy Wingels and John Hayden have each scored in those contests. That’s great for the fourth line but not positive for the other three lines.

The top line has probably been the most consistent but has had its off nights. Many figured (myself included) that once Nick Schmaltz got healthy/back in the lineup that he, Patrick Kane and Ryan Hartman would snap right back into Game 1 form. That really hasn’t happened yet. The third line of Patrick Sharp, Artem Anisimov and Alex DeBrincat hasn’t produced much, either. Anisimov, especially, has been struggling.

Regardless of the line the issues have been the same: too many one-and-done opportunities, not enough zone time and not enough puck possession. The last two used to be such consistent parts of the Blackhawks’ game and they had a lot of success because of them. Getting back to dominating zone time and puck possession can be done, but the Blackhawks need to find the right combinations to do so.

There was nothing wrong with celebrating the Blackhawks’ eye-popping, opening-night victory against the Penguins. Calling it a “statement game” was getting a little ahead of things. There has been more of a statement made in the Blackhawks’ recent trend of games, and it’s a reminder that this season is going to be a work in progress.

Break out the blender.