On Thursday night, in that glorious game against the Isles, you might be somewhat shocked to see who led the forward lines in minutes at 5 on 5 for the New Jersey Devils. You might expect the top line, as would seem logical. Or, you might think Dawson Mercer’s second line, as they produced a goal out there and were prominent in producing attempts on net. They dominated the competition, with extremely positive relative Corsi scores between Mercer, Jesper Bratt and Andreas Johnsson. I mean, just look at the shot contributions chart from Todd Cordell:
However, what that chart doesn’t show, and what you most likely would not expect, is that the line with the most 5v5 minutes on Thursday night was...the fourth line of Michael McLeod, Jimmy Vesey and Tyce Thompson. If you don’t believe me, check out the chart from Natural Stat Trick:
Both Vesey and McLeod had over 14 minutes of ice time at 5 on 5, and Tyce was over 13 minutes. No one else was even close, with Johnsson clocking in next at 12:31. Yet, you can see the Corsi numbers, that fourth line got smacked around in possession. I mean, most of the team did, that’s to be somewhat expected in a game where you are leading for the majority of it. However, even when they weren’t leading, in the first period, the Devils were crushed in possession, ending period 1 with only 10 attempts for versus 23 attempts against. But obviously, having the fourth line out there for the most minutes was not helping in that department either.
Now, the reason the coaching staff had out that fourth line the most, and not the top two scoring lines, can also be somewhat attributed to score effects. With the Devils leading for much of the game, the coaching staff was more concerned with playing defense and holding the lead than actually expanding it. This was especially true when they went up by 2 goals and more. In those cases, it was clear that Lindy Ruff prioritized playing strong defense and keeping the lead as opposed to piling on goals.
However, with that being said, it’s still a little crazy that that line got the most minutes. Especially since the top 6 was doing so well against what is supposed to be a solid defensive team in New York. Even the third line was solid, Jesper Boqvist was very noticeable on the ice which was a huge sign, and Tomas Tatar finally did something in a black and red uniform. But the fourth line still got the most minutes.
Now, of course it worked out in the end, and the Devils played an excellent game. And that fourth line was out there, for the most part, against tough competition. If you look at the opposition stats from Natural Stat Trick, the McLeod line played most of their time against either the top line of Mathew Barzal, Josh Bailey and Anders Lee, or against the punishing fourth line of Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck. And they held their own of course, allowing no goals and keeping the Devils in front. That was their job, and they succeeded.
In the end, however, I would hope that the fourth line getting top minutes among all of the forwards will be something that does not happen all too often, even in games like this where the Devils hold the lead for the majority of the game. It seems like a “playing not to lose” sort of approach, instead of playing to win, and that is bound to create games where the momentum turns against NJ and they cannot get it back. But again, it was also highly successful on Thursday, and the line managed to hold the top line of the Isles to no goals, so who knows, maybe it ends up being the right approach moving forward? Just seems weird.