Fourth line flying

They are all steak, no sizzle. They rarely hit the scoresheet, and are even less likely to find their way on to the nightly highlight reel. But make no mistake: The Winnipeg Jets fourth line as currently constructed is giving coach Paul Maurice the kind of luxury he’s never had before.

Mathieu Perreault, Nate Thompson and Trevor Lewis are very quietly having a solid season, earning the considerable trust and ice time that they’ve been given. Look at their most recent effort Friday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Late in the third period of a 1-1 tie, there was the trio out on the ice. You can likely count on one hand the number of times Maurice would look outside his top nine forwards for a shift in that key spot in past seasons.

It was well-deserved. The line had a terrific outing against a talented Toronto team in a 2-1 shootout loss, including a memorable first-period shift in which they cycled the puck in the offensive zone for a full minute, generating a whopping nine shot attempts.

“It’s always a positive and it definitely feels good when you have an offensive shift like that when you’re in the zone and you’re able to hem them in, especially because it was against the Tavares line too,” Thompson said following Sunday’s practice at Bell MTS Place ahead of Monday night’s meeting with the Ottawa Senators (6 p.m.).

“If you can do it against one of their top lines and you hem them into their D-zone, it stems well for the rest of our team…whenever we can get a shift like that, it feels like it helps our team and we can build some momentum. I thought we did that.”

With so much other firepower up front, the Jets don’t really need these guys to score, although the occasional contribution is most welcome. Perreault has seven goals and six assists, with much of that coming on the second power play unit he plays on. Lewis has one goal and four assists, while Thompson has a pair of tallies and two helpers.

But Maurice does need them to defend, to shift momentum, and chew up valuable ice time while not being a liability. And that’s where the so-called “Dirty Thirties” line — Perreault is 33, Lewis is 34 and Thompson is 36 — have been so effective. Incredibly, they have yet to be scored against five-on-five shift this season. Combined, they are a plus-18.

“I think it’s huge. We’ve been able to roll four lines. The minutes they’ve been getting are important minutes. You see them taking a lot of D-zone draws for us to kind of change the flow of the game. It’s important, whether (against) Toronto it kind of adds some momentum and now you throw a line like that out there, you kind of get the flow back in your favour. Toronto might have to dump it out and now you’re changing and going back the other way,” said third-line centre Adam Lowry.

“You look at the Calgary series and (Thompson) scores a big goal for us and ultimately we win that game. They’ve had real positive contributions, Matty on the power play and the other two on the PK. So not only 5-on-5, they’re contributing on our special teams. To see them contributing 5-on-5 is huge for us. If you want to do well and you want to have a successful team, you need contributions from all four lines.”

Indeed, the trio are regularly approaching double-digit minutes in ice time, which is allowing the other three lines to avoid over-usage and exhaustion. That’s important in a condensed season like this, with days off at a premium.

“They’ve got a really simple, real direct way, and because of that, all three guys know where it’s going. They’re trying to get pucks to the net, scrum pucks… all three of those guys, they played playoff hockey, they’ve played in big games and they know that’s the way it’s going to look, so they’ve been employing that now,” said Maurice.

“That’s about 20 games in 36 days for our team, that might be the find in all of this, the value in having those three guys, that they can generate and they can be, not a line that you’re just trying to get through on your rotation to reset back to your top, but they can be effective.”

Winnipeg (22-13-3) will look to get back into the win column against Ottawa (13-21-4), which is coming off a 6-3 victory over Montreal on Saturday. Although they still occupy last place in the all-Canadian division, the Senators are far from a pushover.

“We go in there early in the season and play them three games and I think early on you could tell they were a bit of a young team. You’d get up by a couple of goals you don’t necessarily break them but mentally they kind of dig themselves a bit of a hole and you’re able to kind of start implementing your style of game,” said Lowry.

“They seem to kind of continually get better. They seem to have just been really building this year. Their young guys are starting to play with a lot more confidence. They’re starting to contribute. You’re starting to see some growth from those guys. We expect one of those games where there’s going to be a lot of speed up front and they’re playing loose, they’re playing not worried about making mistakes. That makes them a dangerous team.”

Winnipeg won the first four games against Ottawa earlier this year, then dropped a 2-1 heartbreaker on Feb. 13 at Bell MTS Place when Brady Tkachuk scored the winner with nine seconds left in regulation. There are four more meetings left after Monday.

“They were just better than anybody gave them credit for at the start, and maybe that still happens. I don’t think we ever looked at them as that. They’re a hard out, they’re a hard game. And in all our games that we’ve played, I think there may have been one that got away from them toward the end of the second period. But it’s been a grinder,” said Maurice.

“We have never really looked, at least in the coaching staff when they put the lineup at the start of the year, we thought well this team’s a whole lot better than maybe people will give them credit for, and then when you watch them play and almost listen to how they’re viewed, they’ve got some good young talent and they maybe pat them on the heads and say they’ll be good some day. Anybody that works that hard, that’s got skill, that’s got good veterans, that’s got good goaltending, they can beat you on any night. So it’s a good team.”

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

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