No more Merlot Line after Campbell's broken leg

No more Merlot Line after Campbell's broken leg
June 7, 2013, 10:15 am
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BOSTON – Two years ago the Bruins fourth line, otherwise known as the Merlot line for their cranberry-colored practice jerseys, was one of several reasons Boston raised the Stanley Cup over their heads. It’s a little hazy to remember now, but in a Game 7 scenario in Vancouver there was some understandable tentativeness from Boston out of the opening gates. That was until Shawn Thornton, Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille hopped over the boards and started hitting everything in sight, and brought everything into focus for the rest of the Bruins.

They ratcheted up the physical tone of the ultimate Stanley Cup Finals game, and cycled the puck deep in the Canucks end in a shift that started momentum moving in Boston’s direction.

We all know what happened from that point on, as the rest is glorious Stanley Cup winning history in the Canucks backyard.

Thornton, Paille and Campbell rightfully became known as the best fourth line in the NHL as a result, and they’ve lived up to that moniker over the last three years together as an energy unit. It hasn’t always been easy as last year attested to when the fourth line forwards struggled right along with everybody else, but all three found their groove this season prior to the playoffs.

By the start of the postseason, the trio of Thornton, Paille and Campbell had essentially surpassed the struggling third line as a forward group relied upon by the Bruins coaching staff, and capable of providing a significant impact. Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille both struck for game-winning goals in the second round series against the New York Rangers, and the Bruins would have been hard-pressed to advance to their current position without the Merlot line’s diligence.

But all of that changed in the second period of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Gregory Campbell slid into an Evgeni Malkin missile while killing a penalty, and the look of agony on his face as he tried to rise up after impact told the entire unfortunate story. The Malkin shot broke Campbell’s right fibula, and the scrappy, tough center continued to kill the rest of the penalty while skating on one good leg before struggling mightily to get off the ice.

The Penguins didn’t score, and the other three guys on the ice along with Campbell made certain that the fourth line center was going to get rewarded for his toughness, grit and courage under fire.

“He was obviously in pain, and the ref is not going to blow the whistle because they obviously had possession. You just want to try and get it out. I mean, they were trying to work over on his side because obviously he was in pain, but he got back up and tried to block shots,” said Johnny Boychuk. “You just wanted to get in the lanes beside him, or do anything just to get it out so he could change or we could get a whistle.

“You just want to do whatever it takes to get it out and help him out. It's not fun being injured, and the ref doesn't blow the whistle because they have possession. You want to make sure to do the job, and try not to run around because once you do, then they start seaming you.”

The play encapsulated everything involved in Campbell’s game: the willingness to sacrifice his own body to block shots, fight opponents that are much bigger and stronger than him, win face-offs and camp in front of the net for tipped pucks and redirections. It also explains why Campbell’s inner toughness and sacrifice for the team are exactly the kind of things that will inspire the rest of his Bruins teammates moving forward.

Just as the Bruins made it a mission to win their first Stanley Cup for Nathan Horton once an Aaron Rome head shot took him out in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals, the Bruins are rallying around Campbell’s cause. They want to make sure his willingness to break a bone while sacrificing his body isn't for nothing, and that kind of “all in” action is ultimately rewarded at the team level.

It’s always been the Bruins way in the playoffs, and, when it’s all said done, Boston has always prided itself on being willing to do uncomfortable, sometimes painful things that help win playoff hockey games.

Campbell is latest inspiring example for the rest of the Bruins teammates when they have to stand between a shot and an empty net, or try redirecting a 108-mph Zdeno Chara bomb from the point.

“We talked about it. We don't want that to go to waste. It takes a big step to lie down in front of a slapper like that,” said Shawn Thornton. “Obviously you saw him play on a broken leg for 45 seconds. You want to play well for him after that, that's for sure.

“That's the way [Campbell] plays day in and day out, whether it's blocking a shot, or on the other side during the seasons he's stepped up and fought a lot of guys a lot bigger than him to try and change momentum. He's taken the pressure off me sometimes doing that, and that's not really his role. It doesn't matter what it is, he's been the ultimate teammate since he's been here.”

Unfortunately, that “ultimate teammate” is now done for the rest of the playoffs with the broken right leg, and that means the Bruins will have to get five more postseason victories without their Merlot Line intact. The Bruins have yet to decide whether they will keep Daniel Paille and Thornton together, and merely slide Rich Peverley into the center position between the energy wingers.

But it certainly won’t be the same. The chemistry and the history of the three fourth line forwards have made the sum much greater than the individual parts, and that can’t be recreated with a replacement part. Campbell was also enjoying the best postseason of all three players with seven points (3 goals, 4 assists) and a plus-7 in the 15 playoff games leading into Friday night’s Game 4.

“I’ve played with him for three years. I’m going to miss him. There are little times where we read off each other with little-to-no communication,” said Thornton. “If it’s me and Paille paired with somebody else, then it should be a pretty seamless transition because we play straight line hockey. But you can’t say enough about [Soupie] and the way he played in the playoffs. He was one of our best players throughout the postseason.”

It’s difficult to believe the transition from the Merlot Line to Something Else Line will be quite as “seamless” as Thornton hopes it will be. There was a lot to live up to trying to fill into Campbell’s skates even before his courageous reputation was cemented by his teeth-gritting penalty kill with a broken leg in Game 3 of the conference finals.

The Bruins will have to do it this time without the reassurance of knowing their fourth line will be there to save their butts in the end.