Fourth lines are for the bruisers, the low-skill grinding types that give the stars a breather, right? They are easily replaceable roster filler, players that like to throw hands rather than score goals with them.
For most of hockey history, sure. Even a few teams nowadays dress players whose main purpose is to run around, cause mayhem, and collect a paycheck while playing six or seven minutes a night, putting up many times more penalty minutes than points.
The Vegas Golden Knights are not one of those teams. Sure, they have Ryan Reaves, but more on that later.
Their fourth line as currently constructed consists of Tomas Nosek, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and William Carrier, two of whom entered the season with just 58 NHL games combined. Throughout the regular season, this trio had an exact 50% Corsi For percentage (CF%) at 5-on-5. That’s average for the league, elite for a fourth line.
In Game 1 of the Knights’ playoff run, however, these three took things to a new level. They posted an incredible 78.6 CF% in that contest, including an 87.5% mark when stacked up against Anze Kopitar, the Los Angeles Kings superstar pivot.
If that weren’t enough, this line was also on ice for the lone goal of Game 1, a Shea Theodore long-range wrister that saw Nosek grab the primary assist and Bellemare create some havoc in front.
Carrier’s tenacity in particular was on full display in that one, as he threw 10 hits in 8:49 of ice-time. The 23-year-old also irked Drew Doughty to the point that the Kings blue liner took out his frustrations on Carrier in the third period with a head hit that would draw a one-game suspension.
The thing about Carrier is that he serves the role that many people believe Ryan Reaves does. He throws hard hits, he’s willing to fight, but unlike Reaves, he is a net positive for the team. Finishing woes are what they are — that 1.9 shooting percentage is not pretty — but Carrier clearly gets to the right areas, as evidenced by his team-high 0.95 expected goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 (19th league-wide).
He also strikes that tricky balance of being outrageously physical while staying out of the penalty box (19 minutes all season, 0 in two playoff games). Whereas Reaves took 10 more minor penalties than he drew, Carrier drew 10 more than he took this year. That’s a net of 40 more minutes of power play time that Carrier gives you over Reaves.
Even beyond Carrier, this fourth line is rather incredible when it comes to avoiding the sin bin. Nosek and Bellemare combined for just 28 penalty minutes all year long. By contrast, Reaves alone had over three times that (inclusive of his time in Pittsburgh).
Game 2 was admittedly a bit different. This line was outshot 14-7, but lest you think they were one-game wonders, let’s jump inside the numbers a bit more. While yes, the Corsi paints an unflattering picture, a look at scoring chances reveals a much more even matchup. In fact, the Vegas fourth line won that battle, 6-5. This line helped keep Los Angeles from taking low-danger shots, and were integral in the Kings having a historically poor offensive showing (just 1.62 expected goals-for in nearly 100 minutes of hockey).
How the rest of this series shakes out for the hard-nosed triumvirate is unclear, but what is nearly crystal is the fact that head coach Gerard Gallant has the utmost faith in this group. You don’t put many fourth lines out there against the likes of Kopitar, after all. Such a move allows Vegas’ more skilled lines to match up against weaker opposition, increasing the likelihood of scoring (which, in this series, is at a premium).
One question looms large over this roster though: the impending return of David Perron. With him back, one of the forwards has to drop from the lineup. Will it be one of the current so-so performing third line players (Cody Eakin, Ryan Carpenter and Tomas Tatar) or will Gallant decide to split up his fourth line? Too many quality forwards is a good problem to have — especially when you can put Perron in your lineup — but could this move disturb the balance of a team that has taken the first two games of this series?
We shall see.
Statistics from Corsica, Natural Stat Trick and Hockey-Reference.