A year ago, Andrew Shaw was in a marquee spot in the Blackhawks’ lineup in the Western Conference final against the Los Angeles Kings — centering a high-powered line with Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad, or better yet skating with Kane and Jonathan Toews.
This year, Shaw is playing a less-visible but arguably even more important role as a grinding winger on the fourth line. He’s doing what he does best — battling, hustling, fighting and making the most of limited ice time, with center Marcus Kruger and Andrew Desjardins. And embracing it.
“I take it as [coach Joel Quenneville] having confidence that I can be on the ice against the top line,” Shaw said. “He knows we’re going to play smart hockey and sacrifice maybe some offense to play a good defensively to help the team win.”
Shaw’s role and the fourth-line’s minutes bear watching against the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference final, which begins Sunday at Honda Center. Every contending team wants to “roll four lines” in the playoffs and keep their top guys fresh throughout. But inevitably, something gets in the way of the best-laid plans and coaches end up leaning more and more on their top guys.
Including the Hawks, a team with as much depth as any in the NHL. Last year against the Kings, the Hawks’ fourth line of Kruger, Ben Smith and Brandon Bollig played an impressive 24.1 percent of the team’s even-ice minutes in Game 1, when the Hawks won 3-1. By Game 7, the fourth line of Michael Handzus, Kris Versteeg and Bollig played a combined 13:04 of the overtime loss, just 7.7 percent of the even-ice minutes.
It bears watching this time, because through the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Hawks have been rolling four lines better than they ever have in their seven-year run as Cup contenders. Shaw, Kruger and Desjardins averaged 12:15 of even-ice time against the Wild — including 25.0 percent (13:15 per man) in the Game 4 clincher. When your fourth line plays a quarter of the forward minutes in a series-clinching game, you’ve got a good thing going.
“It’s huge. That’s why we have success,” Shaw said. “It’s the teams that have four lines that can play and contribute offensively and defensively that are going to go furthest in the playoffs.”
The Hawks are 7-1 since the current fourth line was formulated when Shaw and Desjardins replaced Teuvo Teravainen and Joakim Nordstrom in Game 3 against the Nashville Predators in the first round. Desjardins, in fact, who had been a healthy scratch in the Hawks’ first two playoff games, scored a goal in the first period of his first game to give the Hawks a 1-0 lead in Game 3 after they had lost 6-2 in Game 2.
But their main job, for the most part, is to break even. Scoring is a bonus. It’s a mostly thankless role.
“Yeah, but you know what? I think we’re all proud of what we bring to the table,” said Desjardins, who was acquired in a March 2 trade with the San Jose Sharks for Ben Smith. “It always feels good to be [in] that certain role and be trusted in certain situations. You’re just trying to do that every night. If you’re contributing in other ways and not scoring — that’s what you’ve got to take out of it.”
The Hawks will be challenged to continue using all four lines — especially on the road — against the Ducks, who cause matchup problems for any line with Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Patrick Maroon.
“Everything’s different,” Quenneville said. “We get later in games … the only time we didn’t do it was against [the Kings] — deeper in that series they went to three lines and we were matching them and went with three lines. It put us back in the series doing it that way.”
If he can avoid that in this series, he will.
“We’re accustomed to playing four lines,” Quenneville said. “We’re deeper in areas where we can trust everyone offensively and defensively. Playing four lines [over] the course of a game, everybody’s fresh. We don’t have a drag as the game progresses. I think that’s important. I just think that makes us a better team when we use four lines and everybody contributes.”