WILMINGTON, MA After winning a Stanley Cup two years ago, the trio of Gregory Campbell, Shawn Thornton and Daniel Paille were bandied about as the best fourth line n the NHL.
Rightfully so given their epic contributions to a deep, hard-driving Bruins team that rolled all four forward lines.
The trio had gelled into an energetic forward group capable of doing a myriad of things: altering momentum, chipping in at opportune times offensively and handing the Bruins coaching staff a reliable defensive unit against a wide range of opposing lineup combinations.
It was Thornton, Campbell and Paille that really set the tone in Game 7 of the Cup Finals with a series of shifts pulsating with kinetic energy, and in doing so discouraged a Vancouver Canucks lineup simply looking for a reason to pack it in.
The 2011-12 body of work left those three players with something lofty to live up to last season when things like energy and an extra gear were much more difficult to come by for the defending champs.
Perhaps it was the long to the top that affected them. All three of the forwards experienced a drop in their offensive output and finished with a combined minus-15 rating for the season on a team that boasted the top-five plusminus finishers in the league.
Were aware that were a line that can offer the team things in a lot of different areas, said Campbell. The Rangers play four lines and they play the right way, and I think games like Saturday night where you need our line to be a positive addition, to be physical and bring energy every time were out there as its needed.
Its fair to say that we put a lot of pressure on ourselves and its also fair to say there were a lot of expectations for us last year. I was a new player and we were a new line put together halfway through the year. We ended contributing in a big way on very big nights. When that happens, you have to follow it up and the expectations rise a little bit. They certainly did in our minds, in the minds of the fans, among the coaching staff and everybody else surrounding the team.
Unfortunately they didnt always meet those heightened expectations during a long regular season.
The energy line wasnt able to impose their will in the playoff series against the Washington Capitals either, and watched as Mike Knuble, Keith Aucoin and Joel Ward turned the tables on them finishing off the Black and Gold club with a game-winning goal in overtime of Game 7. Claude Julien acknowledged what everybody could see with their own eyes: that his fourth line wasnt always as effective last year. The Bruins coach opined that perhaps impending free agency weighed on the minds of Thornton, Campbell and Paille.
It wouldnt be the first time something like that happened.
I thought that last year, they werent as good as the year before, said Julien of his fourth line. They need to find that chemistry and that energy that they gave us, that positive energy they gave our team. Maybe last year was tough because all three of those guys were looking for a new contract.
Maybe they were pressing too much. But now is a situation where they can get back to doing what they did. They outworked every line they played against. They threw pucks to the net. They crashed the net. Thats how they got offensive results.
Only Thornton was signed prior to the end of last season. Paille and Campbell inked extensions following last season, but didnt think the impending unknown contract status factored greatly into their inconsistent play.
Its much more realistic that the Stanley Cup hangover had an adverse effect on players that thrive on energy, spirit and that little extra something that can give their team a kick in the pants. There were some nights when it just wasnt there for them last year.
I guess its a realistic thing where its your contract year and you carry more weight on your shoulders to perform. But I think it was more that we held ourselves to a higher level of play after Game 7, said Campbell. The key to our game is simplicity. Not to limit ourselves, but to know what we do best and focus on that to the best of our abilities.
With all three forwards back for multiple years and expected to skate together again after wearing their Merlot Line practice sweaters this week at training camp, theyre raring to reclaim their title as the best fourth line in the NHL.
That means blocking more shots, killing more penalties and keeping top-six lines off the scoreboard when they find themselves thrown on the ice against them. Essentially it means doing whatever it takes to win hockey games.
We never found that groove for most of the season, but we found it toward the end. But we cant just do it some nights, said Paille. We need to bring it all the time. Being called the best fourth line in the NHL is something that I look forward to. We have expectations to represent ourselves that way and put our line in that category again.
Maybe as a line we werent playing together all that much because Campbell and I were killing penalties a lot, and then Thornton wouldnt be out there playing at times. But there are no excuses for anything. At times we just needed to be better.
The opportunity for Campbell, Paille and Thornton to be better starts Saturday against the Rangers and as Campbell alluded to its the perfect kind of gameplay-style to snap them right into past form.