Although the Hurricanes’ line combinations are as consistent as they’ve been all season, the job of first-line left wing remains open for the taking.
Since the injury to Jussi Jokinen, that spot has been a revolving door between Zach Boychuk, recalled Wednesday to replace Jokinen for the next week or so, and Sergei Samsonov. Changing assignments from game-to-game or even within a game is fairly typical, but the unusual part is that whoever isn’t riding shotgun with Eric Staal and playing big minutes will find himself in spot duty on the fourth line due to set combinations elsewhere.
Moving from scoring role to energy role or vice versa seems like a big enough adjustment on its own, but it was the physical aspect that players seemed to have the most trouble with.
“There are times on the fourth line where you’re not skating for over five minutes, and then all of the sudden you’re skating every other shift on the first and your lungs take a beating,” said Boychuk.
“Physically if you’ve been sitting on the bench and then you move up, it takes you a few shifts to catch up,” said Samsonov.
The problem is that those first few shifts are often key to the coaches’ decision to let a player stay there. Boychuk recalls having a terrible first go with Staal and Erik Cole on the first line in late December and not getting another chance until days later, but that all just comes with the territory.
“You’ve just got to be ready,” he said.
Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice said that there are a number of factors that go into his decision on who plays where.
“Sometimes it’s energy level and a little bit of an emotional break from playing against the best or with the best (on the first line) and the pressure that comes with those things,” he said. “With a game like tonight (a pivotal match-up with Atlanta), you play your best players as much as you possibly can, but at the same time we do have a development role here and we want to make sure we’re playing our young players in important minutes.”
As for the first-line-or-bust situation, Maurice said that he likes Jeff Skinner on the second line with Tuomo Ruutu and Jiri Tlusty in more of a defensive role on the third line with Brandon Sutter. He also said that he believed Samsonov to be a one-position player, and although he feels Boychuk can also play right wing, that side of the ice is currently occupied by Cole, Chad LaRose, Patrick Dwyer and Troy Bodie.
“You have certain pieces that move and certain pieces that don’t,” said Maurice.
Due to his belief that he’s played well both lately and in the previous two meetings with Atlanta this season, Maurice said that he planned to go with Samsonov on the first line for most if not all of Saturday’s game. According to Boychuk, who will start with Bodie and Ryan Carter but could always move up later, home games are the best games to play big minutes.
“There’s a lot of pressure playing on the first line, but at home it’s a little bit easier because we have the last change and you’re not always going up against the other team’s best defenders like you would be on the road,” he said.