Many top coaches and hockey minds may think it, but few say it as clearly as Lightning coach Guy Boucher did this fall. A few days into his first training camp in the NHL, Boucher said the third and fourth line forwards would drive the culture of the team.
The leaders, the point getters were very important, no doubt, but the grinders weren’t there just to pass the time until the scorers got back on the ice. They would have big roles, be ready to take spots on the top lines and would be expected to produce.
“You look at teams like Detroit and about any other team that has won a Stanley Cup,” Lightning wing Sean Bergenheim said. “They need the top players, but they won because they are an even team all the way through. Every line contributes in some way.
“For a coach to say that, and understand that, is key. For a player, when you see you are getting recognition, you get more excited, more confident. That’s a big factor in building a team, letting the team know that we need everybody.”
Veterans Dominic Moore, Nate Thompson, Adam Hall, Bergenheim and rookie Dana Tyrell have taken that opportunity and run with it.
Not only have they gotten the little things done, they have been a major reason the Lightning are close to clinching their first playoff berth in quite some time. Each has hit career highs, they lead team statistical categories and have been key filling in for injured players. The Lightning have been missing two or three top-six forwards due to injury in 25 games. They have been missing either Simon Gagne, Vinny Lecavalier, Steve Downie or Ryan Malone in all but 16 games.
Thompson played on Lecavalier’s line the previous two games, recording a goal and two assists, and Moore scored Tuesday against the Islanders and has recently centered Steven Stamkos and Marty St. Louis.
Regardless, Boucher likes to change up lines several reasons. He dislikes players falling into comfort zones and likes to put players in different situations.
“Sometimes,” he said, “you’re surprised what you discover.”
He also does it to provide a carrot for the players.
“I like the guys in the lineup to feel that they’ve got a way up,” Boucher said. “If you’re playing better, harder, smarter than a first or second liner, just like in a company, you have to have the prospect of moving up.”
Five grinders have missed just 14 games combined. They are key to the penalty kill, which is 23 of 25 the last eight games and 36 of 40 in the last 14. Hall, Thompson and Moore all average about 15 minutes per game and have each played more than 20 at least once. All four veterans have hit career marks with nine games left.
*Thompson, 26, had 14 points in his first 118 NHL games before 2010-11 and has 23 points this season. He is tops among Lightning forwards in blocks (71), has 104 hits and is second in face-off percentage. Thompson also has 33 takeaways and just 14 turnovers.
“Nate represents exactly the type of culture we want to build here,” Boucher said. “He’s relentless. When you tell him something once, you don’t have to tell him again. What I like about him is he’s not finished growing [as a player].”
*Moore, 30, has a career-high 14 goals and 158 shots. He is a close third on the team in face-offs.
“I take pride in being a complete player,” Moore said. “That’s something I’ve always believed in and always strived for. I’m trying to improve an element of my game every day. [Career highs are] something to be proud of, but at the same time there’s always more to do.”
*Bergenheim has career highs in points (28) and shots (170, fifth on the team). He has 92 hits and tied for second in takeaways (43).
“We have a good team,” Bergenheim said. “Playing with good players, everybody helps each other and guys are hitting their career highs.”
*Hall, 30, has registered his most points since 2005-06, and is one of four players to suit up for all 73 games after spending the 2009-10 season in Norfolk of the American Hockey League. Hall leads the team in hits (136) and face-off percentage (55.6).
*Tyrell has six goals and has just 14 giveaways in 69 games during his rookie campaign. Tyrell is down for just 37 hits. It seems like he has triple that.
“You want to have that challenge every single game,” Hall said. “We believe it in here that we never know who’s going to get it done, but it’s always somebody stepping up and doing the job. That’s what has made us have such great character and chemistry as a team this season.”