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Bottom six could be the key to another Blackhawks playoff run

Andrew Desjardins, Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger formed a formidable fourth line during the Blackhawks' 2015 Cup run.

In the giddy moments after Bryan Bickell’s tying goal with 1:16 left in Game 6 of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final in Boston, Joel Quenneville didn’t keep his top line on the ice. He didn’t send in his second line, either. Or his third.

No, in a tied game with the Stanley Cup on the line, Quenneville turned to his fourth line. And all Dave Bolland, Michael Frolik and Marcus Kruger did was score the go-ahead goal 17 seconds later. Then, with the lead and a championship less than a minute away, Quenneville kept his fourth line on the ice to salt away the victory.

Two years later, in Game 6 of the Final against the Lightning, with the Hawks protecting a 2-0 lead in the closing minutes, Quenneville didn’t send his superstars over the boards for the coronation. He sent in his fourth line — Andrew Desjardins, Marcus Kruger and Andrew Shaw — for the final minute to make sure the lead held.

Despite all of the Blackhawks’ high-end forwards, what has separated them from the pack in their championship years has been their bottom six.

In 2010, the Hawks boasted a third line of Andrew Ladd, Bolland and Kris Versteeg. In 2013, they had Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw and Viktor Stalberg on the third line and that unmatched fourth line of Kruger, Bolland and Frolik.

And in 2015, their third line was a powerhouse featuring Patrick Sharp, Antoine Vermette and Teuvo Teravainen, complemented by the revelation of a fourth line in Desjardins, Kruger and Shaw.

Every team that makes it far into the playoffs has some skill and some goaltending. It was the Hawks’ depth that set them apart. For most teams, a third line is the checking line and the fourth line plays a handful of minutes. For the Hawks’ Cup teams, the third line was another scoring line, and the fourth line was the shutdown unit.

That depth simply wasn’t there last season, or in 2011, 2012 and 2014.

And while much of the focus has been on the Hawks’ lack of a top-line left wing, five of their top six are pretty well set. The key to another Cup run might be solidifying the bottom six, which has been changing on an almost nightly basis throughout the season.

“That’s what you need if you want to go deep,” Kruger said. “You need everybody — every line needs to play good for the team and play a lot of minutes. All good teams have four good lines and three ‘D’ pairs, so that’s something we want to get.”

The Hawks have plenty of bottom-six-type players, with reliable guys such as Dennis Rasmussen, Richard Panik, Desjardins and Kruger. And rookies such as center Tanner Kero and winger Ryan Hartman have proved to be the kind of players a team can lean on for important minutes in close games. Rasmussen, Desjardins, Nick Schmaltz and Vinnie Hinostroza all can play center, too, which gives a line (like Desjardins, Kruger and Shaw in 2015) versatility and more defensive responsibility.

But injuries, rookie growing pains and the revolving door on Jonathan Toews’ left wing has prevented Quenneville from finding — and sticking to — the right combinations.

“That’s their goal,” Kero said. “They’re trying to find the right look, because they want contributions from those bottom two lines. We want to be rock-solid defensively, but we want to contribute as much as we can. We’ve got plenty of guys in the bottom-six that can do that. It’s just a matter of getting that confidence, and putting it all together.”

For a while, the third line was Rasmussen, Kruger and Panik. Then it was Hartman, Kero and Panik. Both clicked, but neither lasted. And a fourth line that can play 10-12 minutes a night — including some of the most important, pressure-packed minutes imaginable — has yet to emerge. Without one, it might be another short spring.

“You want to be out there in those big moments,” Rasmussen said. “You need that depth. That’s how you win.”

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Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com