The Colorado Avalanche's fourth line, featuring Matt Nieto, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Matt Calvert, has been one of the team's most consistent combinations in training camp. Their ability to recapture their momentum from the regular season could prove critical to the team's quest for the Cup, as recent NHL history shows a link between a strong fourth line and a deep playoff run.
Take, for example, the last two Stanley Cup champions.
After skating only 18:27 minutes together in the regular season, the St. Louis Blues' main fourth line in the 2019 postseason--Ivan Barbashev, Oskar Sundqvist, Alexander Steen--scored three goals in 133:28 minutes of playoff action. They allowed just one goal the other way. Similarly, the Washington Capitals fourth forward unit in 2018--Jay Beagle, Chandler Stephenson and Devante Smith-Pelly--scored three goals in a combined 51:28 postseason minutes, a sharp increase from the regular season in which the trio netted four goals in nearly 200 minutes on the ice together.
This trend bodes well for the Avalanche.
Heading into the 2020 playoffs, the team is confident in its primary fourth line. Logging 136:07 as a trio this year, the line scored six goals and was on the ice for four against, and Nieto, Bellemare and Calvert have remained intact through the first weeks of the NHL restart, providing a spark on every shift.
"That's what we looked to them for, some gritty plays and some energy," said Nazem Kadri. "And they have some talent offensively that they can put the puck in the back of the net. So I think their game is more in the offensive zone, grinding teams down low, playing away from the puck, that sort of thing. I definitely think that can be a factor in terms of depth."
Tyson Jost praised their ability to "suffocate other lines" in the defensive zone before flipping the ice and "buzzing around" on offense. That success can be attributed to chemistry and playing similar styles.
"All three of those guys seem to click," Jost said. "It's fun to watch because they work so hard, and when they get the push down low in the offensive zone, their cycle game is so good and their reloads are awesome. It just never gives the other team a sniff. It's fun to watch those guys--they work hard and all the success they have is very warranted."
Bellemare, who signed with the Avs as a free agent last summer, set personal highs in points (22), goals (nine) and assists (13), done in fewer games than any previous season. He attributes his offensive development to his linemates, who never waste an opportunity to attack the net and have the skills to take such risks.
"There is not a shift where those guys are going to be satisfied to just play a checking shift," Bellemare said. "They are going to want to create, want to produce, try to create momentum. So that's maybe one of the biggest differences with some of the lines I've played with before is that we've been known to be just a solid checking line against the top line and be, you know, physical and everything. But, with Nietsy and Calvy, I feel like we are creating more offense than people are expecting from us."
Calvert and Nieto could have set career highs too, had the pandemic not cut the season short. The former finished with 25 points (12 goals, 13 assists), one short of tying his career high, and the latter with 21 points (eight goals, 13 assists), the fifth time in his career he hit the 20-point mark.
All three feed off each other's success, evidenced by their individual improvement in 2019-20. Their familiarity allows them to sync up quickly and set the tone against their opponent.
"We understand the way each other plays and we kind of try to get one step ahead of the game by understanding the other guys' play," Bellemare said. "It's really simple when all three guys think the same way, and playing with Calvy and Nietsy, I mean they are some of the most skilled guys I've played with on the fourth line."
Added Nieto on the key to their chemistry: "We're three guys that like to push the pace and play fast. We like to play hard defensively. I think the playoff style of hockey fits all three of our games. We take pride in our role on the team and know that we have to be sharp starting right away in the playoffs here."
All of this speaks to Colorado's depth, a common narrative from training camp as the team returned to the rink at nearly full health. With players like Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen, to Gabe Landeskog and Andre Burakovsky, the Avs boast some of the game's most prolific scorers on the top lines. But depth is reflected in the back half of the lineup, provided by guys who can produce efficiently in fewer minutes.
The Avs' fourth line is poised to give the team that advantage.
"When it gets to the playoffs, everyone knows their role," Matt Calvert said. "It's so hard to score at times in playoffs, its so hard to win, and when you have four lines that can score and defend at the same time… it is nice. It takes pressure off those top guys, takes pressure off just the third and fourth line to defend when you know your top line can shut down. It's just a great mix, and it's fun going into the Stanley Cup Playoffs with the firepower we have."