Haggerty: Third line has the right stuff

Haggerty: Third line has the right stuff
March 15, 2014, 9:00 am
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WILMINGTON – One of the real underrated aspects of the Boston Bruins 2011 Stanley Cup winning team was the high level of play produced by their third line, a group that added important depth in scoring and saw Chris Kelly, Rich Peverley and Michael Ryder dominate in the important first round series against the Montreal Canadiens.

Boston never hoists the Cup in Vancouver after Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final if Kelly and Ryder don’t catch fire offensively against the Habs, and provide the B’s three strong lines to go along with the Merlot Line during the postseason.

The Bruins are getting a similarly high level of play from their third line this season, and it’s arguably the best they’ve been since Kelly, Peverley and Ryder formed such a dynamic trio. Now Carl Soderberg, Loui Eriksson and Kelly have their stride offensively, and have set their sights to a fairly lofty standard with a month remaining until the playoffs. “That’s what we are here for. We try to be one of the best third lines in the NHL, and help the team win every night,” said Soderberg, who has 14 points (6 goals, 8 assists) in 16 games dating back to January 27. “I’m happy with my spot on the third line. Now that I’ve gotten my opportunity to play center, it’s been great.”

Loui Eriksson has 10 points (two goals, eight assists) along with a plus-7 in the same 16-game span while creating much more offensively than he did prior to the Olympic break, and Kelly has six points (three goals, three assists) along with a plus-6 in 15 games since returning from injury.

In that time some have started referring to the third line as the “Soderberg Line” or “The Swedish Connection” rather than the “Kelly Line” as it’s been known over the last few years.

“You can call it whatever you want,” said Kelly. “You can call it the ‘Eriksson Line’ if you want.”

Clearly that’s a nod to the new identity of Boston’s third line led by the Big Swede, and a world better than the last few seasons when the Bruins tried to use Benoit Pouliot, Chris Bourque and Jordan Caron as answers in the bottom-six combinations.

It clearly wasn’t an overnight success story.

Kelly has always been a steady presence on the third line, though he’s never again approached the player that registered his one and only 20-goal season for the B’s a couple of seasons ago. But the consistent third line center missed a big chunk of the season with a broken ankle suffered on a Pascal Dupuis slash, and that shelved him for seven weeks.

Carl Soderberg entered this season still adjusting to the North American style of hockey, but it really appears that he’s been a different, more comfortable, more confident player since moving into the center spot.

Then there’s Loui Eriksson on the right side, an understated, possibly underrated right wing that has brought his considerable two-way play to the third line after really losing his game in the middle of long, patient recoveries from a pair of serious concussions.

“We’re starting to get that consistency that we’re looking for in all three zones. It’s not just the defensive zone, but it’s the offensive zone as well,” said Kelly. “It’s been good supporting one another all over, and reading off one another. It’s been a bit of an adjustment for all three of us.

“Carl came over at the end of last year, but didn’t really know the North American game as well as he would have liked. Then you had Loui moving into a new system this season that’s apart from the Dallas Stars system where he’s spent his entire career. There are some differences there, and I’m playing a different position than I had been before. But it seems to be working, and we’re certainly communicating and working together to make something good happen.”

The two-way play capabilities are certainly something to encourage a hockey coach. Kelly, Soderberg and Eriksson all pay significant attention to defense and positioning as opposed to gambling players ready to blow out of the defensive zone, and is exactly what Claude Julien demands out of those forwards. It’s the kind of hustling, responsible defense created to turn pucks over, and awards the hard-charging Bruins another chance in overtime.

But the best harbinger of postseason success for Boston’s third line is remaining within their style of play. Soderberg is crashing into bodies in front of the net on a regular basis, and is using his 6-foot-3, 225-pound frame to full effect in the scoring areas. The same goes for Eriksson as he ventures closer to the net while still looking for a string of goals scored.

Soderberg’s willingness to step into the danger areas in the crease and unhesitating battle level for 50/50 pucks is exactly the kind of winning formula in the playoffs that simply doesn’t go in a slump. It’s all about tips, redirects, rebounds and slugging it out with big, strong defensemen around the net come playoff-time, and those are all things the Big Swede truly excels in.

Those are the exact kind of goals that continue the momentum rolling while keeping an eye on Boston’s 15 point lead in the Atlantic Division, and aren’t in any danger of going into a slump around the playoffs. The hard work around the net and courage to stand in front of 100-mph shots will always continue rewarding a hockey team during the playoffs that has all the pieces to dominate for the rest of this season.

“Carl is a free spirit, and his wings are able to let loose in the middle there…which is nice,” said Kelly. “Everyone loves the highlight reel goals, and watching four passes and then it’s in the net.

“But you guys know as well as anyone that playoff goals are seldom scored that way. I think it’s good the way we’re generating offense and chances by mucking it out, and getting to the net trying to get those rebound goals.”

It isn’t all brute force or net-front tenaciousness, of course. Soderberg and Eriksson have shown their skill and finishing time and again this season when they get the puck in the scoring areas. All three players on the third line have also shown the ability to finish offensive plays while contributing for 25 goals thus far this season. It’s not a huge number by any means, but it’s a big step up from the 12 goals produced by the third line last season as they once again settle in as a bottom six line capable of doing some major damage in the Stanley Cup playoffs.