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Quenneville showing confidence in Blackhawks’ fourth line

The fourth line BrandBollig (left) Marcus Kruger Ben Smith (not pictured) was superb circus trip. | Darryl Dyck/AP

The fourth line of Brandon Bollig (left), Marcus Kruger and Ben Smith (not pictured) was superb on the circus trip. | Darryl Dyck/AP

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Updated: December 1, 2013 8:27PM

Throughout November, as players shuttled in and out of the Blackhawks’ lineup for various reasons, coach Joel Quenneville constantly moved guys around, trying to find the right line combinations for the personnel he had.

But one thing never changed: The fourth line of Brandon Bollig, Marcus Kruger and Ben Smith. Quenneville never touched them. And it paid off big time during the circus trip, which proved to be a coming-out party for the trio at both ends of the ice.

“It’s awesome, man,” Bollig said. “And it shows that confidence that Q has in us. It’s definitely flattering that they keep us together, knowing that we’ve played well together and feed off of each other.”

It’s not a glamorous role. Nor is it an easy one. Their job is to play a defensive style against the opposition’s skill players and to allow the Hawks’ top guys a little more rest. Some nights they’ll play only eight minutes; some nights they’ll play 12 or 13. But lately, Quenneville has been putting them on the ice in key situations late in tight games, trusting that they can hold down the fort and even create a little offense. Each of the three players had two goals in November — a welcome bonus for the Hawks.

“That line’s been very effective,” Quenneville said. “They start in their own end almost every shift, and they end up in the other team’s end at the end of it. It’s what we look for, and we had that success with that group last year, and it’s been a staple with us this year.”

During the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said you don’t win in the postseason because of your top two lines, you win because of your bottom two lines. After all, good teams have a handful of top-tier players who can essentially neutralize each other. It’s the other guys who make the difference.

The Hawks had that kind of depth last season. Their fourth line had Dave Bolland (a key member of the Stanley Cup team in 2010) centering Kruger (a second-liner for much of the season) and Michael Frolik (a former top-10 draft pick). Early on this season, the Hawks clearly didn’t have the same depth. Now, with Kris Versteeg on the third line and the fourth unit coming into its own, they’re starting to resemble last season’s team more and more.

“The fact that that line last year during the playoffs was considered a fourth line, where anywhere else it could have been maybe a second or third line, it’s crazy,” Bollig said. “For us, anytime a coach puts his quote-unquote fourth line out there late in the game or gets us 12, 13, 14 minutes, it’s a good thing. It shows how deep we are.”

All three players have made significant strides since they were put together for good on Nov. 2, when Bollig and Smith each scored, with assists from Kruger. Smith has been very noticeable over the last six games, becoming more of an offensive weapon without compromising his defense. Bollig has continued to prove he can be an every-day player, shedding his reputation as an enforcer (he has had only two fights and unleashed a beautiful top-shelf wrist shot for a goal Saturday against the Coyotes).

And Kruger, under the tutelage of all-time faceoff master Yanic Perreault, has drastically improved his performance at the dot, winning 54.7 percent of his draws, up from 46.2 last season. That’s particularly crucial for him, given that he starts nearly every shift with a faceoff in his own zone on the fourth line or on the penalty kill.

The only holdover from last season’s stellar fourth line, Kruger sees things coming together in a similar fashion.

“It was the same last year; it was an ongoing process to find that chemistry,” he said. “We’ve been playing together for a while now, and we know what they expect from us. We just try to get the job done.”


Twitter: @marklazerus

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