The Calgary Flames won last night because their fourth line outscored the other team entirely.
How many times have we gotten to say that over the past few years? Secondary scoring has been a major issue for this team since the turn of the century. It is rare that the fourth group makes such a strong contribution, but last night they came up big when the Flames needed a win.
The line looked great in their debut under new coach Darryl Sutter. With Sam Bennett playing on the left wing, Derek Ryan in the middle, and Josh Leivo on the right side, they finished with a 75% CF% in 9:06 of ice time together, along with an xGF% of 96.16%. Obviously they created all the offence for the Flames as well. Both goals were scored by Leivo, and both were assisted by Ryan and Bennett.
Sutter discussed the importance of the line in his post game press conference.
Sutter responded to a question about what differences he saw in his team, saying “well, we had four lines. If you want to win hockey games in this division you need four good lines and three good pair, and your goaltender to make some big saves.”
The play of the fourth line seemed at the top of Sutter’s mind throughout the conference, stressing its importance more than once. Team depth seems to be one of the primary goals of the new boss.
But what was the cause of the success last night? Two big factors jumped out to me: personnel and usage. The Flames looked like a remarkably different team under Sutter after just a practice or two, and these are two of the big reasons why.
Simply put, this combination on the fourth line made more sense than a lot of previous ones used under Geoff Ward. Now that isn’t entirely Ward’s fault, Ryan has been injured for most of the past month, but Sutter’s line combinations were way more suited for 5v5 play.
Leivo is the guy that really puzzles observers of this team. He never seemed to find a place in the lineup under Ward, and was repeatedly scratched for a fourth line that included the likes of Buddy Robinson, Zac Rinaldo, and Byron Froese. As we have written about several times, Leivo has been hurt by a terrible shooting percentage this season, and the puck was bound to start going in for him.
He buried two beauties last night.
After not scoring through the first eighteen games, he has three in the last three games. Suddenly his shooting percentage has jumped from 0% (that’s bad) to 9.7%, just under his career average of 10.1%. In other words, water found its level, and Leivo is on pace for 12 goals over an 82 game season. For a guy making $875,000 this season, that’s really good value.
Ryan has also been a nice boost to the lineup since coming back. He was a non-factor throughout the early part of the season, prior to being sidelined with a tough hand injury. Those hand injuries can be tough, as they are often difficult to heal, but he has really helped the fourth line since his return, with four points in four games. It is hard to always look at a player in relation to their salary, but Ryan makes more than three million per season. Calgary needs him to play like this.
Lots has been made about Bennett potentially getting a fresh start under Sutter, and last night was a good debut. It wasn’t anything crazy, but he was around the net a lot and made a couple really nice plays like this power move in the third.
To me this was the best sign from Bennett, better than either of the assists. This is the version of Bennett that makes sense and that helps this team win. I love that Leivo is right there as well. Those guys can create some havoc together, and hopefully spend more time around the goal.
And the most important part of the personnel were the guys who weren’t on the ice. I simply don’t understand why Joakim Nordstrom has gotten so much time on the fourth unit despite being a total non-factor at 5v5. He’s a good penalty killer, sure. But if the Flames can be more disciplined under Sutter and hopefully find themselves shorthanded less often, the trio that played last night is an improvement at even strength. The same goes for Froese, Robinson, Rinaldo and others. None of them drive play at 5v5 better than the guys on the ice last night.
Having better players on the fourth group allows you to play them more. That is a simple reality and it was clear right from the jump that Sutter was going to roll his lines. It hasn’t been uncommon this season for Calgary fourth liners to play six or eight minutes a game, barely enough to get involved, let alone make a difference.
The group last night played a full nine minutes together at even strength. Leivo played the least of the three last night, but still played eleven minutes total. Bennett and Ryan benefitted from some special teams opportunities, and finished at 13:13 and 14:40 respectively. At even strength, the range between the most and least ice time among forwards was pretty slim. Leivo played 10:57, and Mikael Backlund led all forwards with 14:25. That is about as close as it gets in an NHL game.
I also thought it was interesting that the fourth line took six of their eight face-offs in the offensive zone. Thats an 85.71% offensive zone start percentage, and the six o-zone draws were the most of any line. This is the type of usage that both helps a line get going, but also gives them confidence to continue playing hard and doing the right things.
One thing we have heard repeatedly about Sutter is that he will create accountability. It would be easy to attribute the fourth line minutes to the idea that they were playing well and got rewarded. I think that is true and important, but Sutter’s usage seemed to me like more of a tactical decision than a message sending one. He wants the fourth line to be a weapon, and he gave them enough minutes to give them a chance. Are they necessarily going to play this much or this well every game? Probably not. But I think it is something we can expect with Sutter behind the bench. This team is going to roll four lines regularly, and the fourth group is going to be expected to pull their weight.
In the media and the fanbase there seems to be a false-dichotomy between a fun players coach and a tough old-school coach. You know what matters to players? Playing time. For Bennett, Leivo, and Ryan, they are probably laughing at the media reports of Sutter being hard to play for. Sure, some of the other guys probably wanted more minutes. I bet we see some hunger from the top two lines on Saturday night as they push to show the new coach all that they bring to the table.
But don’t be surprised if the fourth line shows up again and pushes hard for minutes as well. You only get so many chances in this league, you can bet they want to take advantage of this one.
Photo Credit: Gerry Thomas