When it comes to third and fourth lines, they are usually first and foremost among reasons why teams make deep runs in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Depth is king during the postseason, and it's been on display during the Western Conference Semifinal series with the Detroit Red Wings and San Jose Sharks.
In Game 2, it was San Jose's Benn Ferriero
who came up with the overtime winner. In Game 4, it was Darren Helm who kept Detroit's season alive by scoring with 1:27 left in regulation to break a 3-3 tie.
For most playoff teams, there's isn't a discernible difference among top-six forwards. That's why getting consistent contributions from role players can make or break a season.
“It's very important to have the depth and not having the top two lines scoring the goals for you," Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom said. "I think it makes you harder to play against. If you have more lines that can score goals and chip in defensively, this gives you more of a chance."
Lidstrom knows the importance of the bottom-six forwards and doesn't have to look far for a reminder. The trio of Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby and Darren McCarty comprised "The Grind Line," which was a major part of three Red Wings' championships (Joey Kocur was actually an original part of the line in 1997). They didn't put up huge offensive numbers, but they were always tough to play against and could match up against any of the opposition's lines.
"They did a terrific job whether they were playing against top lines or playing the fourth line," Lidstrom said. "They were grinding and they were good at it. They were good at playing team defense too."
There's not as much grinding with the speedy Helm, Patrick Eaves and Justin Abdelkader, but in the modern-day NHL where there's less clutching and grabbing, getting goals from those players is even more important now. The Wings played their two best games of this series in Games 3 and 4, when Helm and Eaves connected for 2 goals and 2 assists.
"Knowing you can go out and play and offensively chip in, it's going to be tough for the other team to beat you," Draper said. "It's huge. You look at any team that wins the Stanley Cup, you look a third, fourth lines, they contributed. You always know going into a game, the big guys are going to be the big guys. It's almost like they cancel each other out. If the third, fourth lines can step and score goals, that's usually going to be the difference."
The Sharks might have the most talented third line remaining in the playoffs, with Torrey Mitchell
, Joe Pavelski
and Kyle Wellwood combining for 6 goals and 11 assists in 10 games. Pavelski scored the OT winner in Game 1 against the Los Angeles Kings during the first round and sees a lot of time on the power play, something not many "role players" can boast.
With snipers Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau
combining for just 5 goals so far in the postseason, getting goals from the third line -- and an OT winner from Ferriero in Game 1 against the Red Wings -- takes the pressure off them and gives them time to find their scoring touch.
"Pavs, Torrey and Welly have been good since January," said Devin Setoguchi, who broke out for a hat trick in Game 3 against the Red Wings after going five games with just one assist. "We need to have that secondary scoring. That's what makes a difference in the playoffs. That's how you take pressure off the top lines. It's harder to control us as an opposing team when you have everyone scoring."
For evidence of what a red-hot third line can mean to a team in the playoffs, look at the Tampa Bay Lightning, who advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals by winning seven straight games.
Martin St. Louis leads all scorers in the playoffs with 13 points and Vinny Lecavalier is tied for second with 12. But also tied for second is Steve Downie, who is better known for his willingness to throw his body around and get under the skin of players than his scoring ability.
Tampa Bay's third line of Downie, Dominic Moore
and Sean Bergenheim have 11 goals and 17 assists through two rounds, and that's with Downie missing one game due to a suspension. For Draper, it's a shining example of what role players can do for a team in the playoffs.
"You look at where Tampa is right now and look at that line," Draper said. "They score big goals. Obviously their big guys have been chipping in, but that's the mindset of a hockey club come playoff time. You know the big guys are going to do it, but if the role players, the character players can chip in, then you're a real tough team to beat."
That's been the case with the Red Wings and Sharks. Role players have had a big say in the outcome of games in this series, and they may be the reason the Sharks either win this series Sunday night or the Red Wings force a Game 6 back in Detroit.