They get six minutes a night and live with an unpleasant truth: twelve forwards can be demoted to the line below and have their fall broken by a teammate. Only the fourth liners work without a net.
The Leafs take a 2-0 record into Pittsburgh for a game against the Penguins Wednesday and a litany of reasons are being put forward for the club’s good start. J.S. Giguere’s goaltending, the renewed penalty kill, Tim Brent’s revelatory performance centering the third line. Pick one.
Pick all of them.
But the fourth line, journeyman Mike Zigomanis
between Mike Brown
and heavyweight Colton Orr have not been scored on.
The fourth line usually gets somewhere around 10 per cent of the available ice time and if it’s important to give a good account when things are going well, it’s even more important when the wheels fall off the wagon.
“The fourth line is especially key when things aren’t going well,” Zigomanis said. “There are going to be times this year when everything isn’t going well. You want your fourth line to be there, getting a hit, a goal, a check, a fight, anything to keep things positive.”
The perfect fourth line isn’t a home for one-dimensional fighters. At six-foot-three, 222 pounds, Orr is the Leafs’ true heavyweight. His career slate shows eight NHL goals and 793 penalty minutes. But three Orrs would not see the ice.
It is, instead, a collection of individual skills spread about more players than usual.
So Orr skates as a sort of nuclear deterrent with Brown, another willing fighter but a much better skater and occasional penalty killer. Zigomanis, a pacifist who has mined the fringes of the NHL and Europe, has found work because he is an excellent skater and a gifted face-off man. Indeed, Zigomanis lists the unimposing Scott Nichol of the Sharks and Montreal’s sawed off Dustin Boyd as two of the best fourth-liners in the league.
“You want to win draws. Your line is not going to get too many minutes if you are out there losing draws,” said Zigomanis.
And while players further up the ladder can struggle in the circle, the rules are different for fourth liners.
“In your first and second lines, you can get by without winning draws. You’re going to be out there, you’re going to get opportunities. If you lose the draw again (and you are on the fourth line) you may not get out there again."
Brown, whose Fu Manchu moustache would have been at home on Wendel Clark’s mug, says the key ingredient to fourth-line success is attitude.
“You need to have everyone know it’s going to be physical,” he said. “Guys are going to go out there and bang and take care of that aspect.”
Said Orr: “I know my role. We know what our jobs are. We know we have to set the tone and look after teammates. I enjoy my role.”
Fourth liners spend the most of their time facing other fourth liners, but the idea is to keep a passable amount of skill on deck so the line won’t be lost when facing opposition’s third or even second lines.
“The fourth line has to be able to skate and be prepared to play in a lot of situations,” said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. “It can’t be so limited that you can’t put them on the ice. I’m pretty comfortable with the guys we have right now.”