PITTSBURGH – Around the Ottawa Senators you won’t hear much mention of the Turris line or Brassard line. Nor the Pageau line or Smith line.
That’s because the wingers those men are skating with at any given moment are bound to change – by the next game, if not the next shift.
Incredibly, head coach Guy Boucher used 16 different forward combinations during Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final. No wonder the first thing winger Bobby Ryan does when he arrives to the rink is check the lineup board with the thought: "How are the ping pong balls coming today?"
"It’s different," said Ryan. "You know he’s going to get everybody involved. So, at times, sometimes you get lost in the shuffle where you’re moving down the bench and you’re wondering who you’re going with."
It is a point of separation between the Senators and every other team left in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The only constant for Boucher’s boys is change.
In fact, their most commonly used trio at even strength is Kyle Turris, Alexandre Burrows and Ryan Dzingel – even though Dzingel has sat for three of the 13 playoff games so far.
As a point of comparison, here is how the Sens stack up against the other teams still in the running for the Stanley Cup (courtesy of Corsica.hockey):
Nashville: Filip Forsberg-Ryan Johansen-Viktor Arvidsson, 145.15 minutes
Anaheim: Andrew Cogliano-Ryan Kesler-Jakob Silfverberg, 134.05 minutes
Pittsburgh: Bryan Rust-Evgeni Malkin-Phil Kessel, 77.16 minutes
*Ottawa: Dzingel-Turris-Burrows, 37.18 minutes
Amazingly, some teams eliminated in the first round managed to deploy a line together for more than 37 minutes at 5-on-5. In fact, the Toronto Maple Leafs had four of them.
Boucher is reluctant to say why exactly he does so much juggling beyond wanting to get a feel for who is having a good night and finding them additional minutes. It also allows him to shelter certain wingers (Tommy Wingels played 7:37 over 10 shifts in Game 1 against Pittsburgh) and makes it tougher on opposing coaches chasing a hard matchup.
What it means for his players is that they need to stay alert on the bench. No one wants to jump on the ice at the wrong time and have the team penalized for too many men on the ice – something that’s happened a league-leading four times already this post-season.
"It’s hard," said centre Jean-Gabriel Pageau. "You’ve got to look at the coach a lot. You’ve got to turn your head and look at what he’s going to say."
"When he says just the centre’s name you’ve got to look around at the other wingers to know if it was your original line or the line you were with last time," added Ryan. "It can get awkward on the bench at times but not bad. I mean he’s very vocal so when he’s calling the line he’s letting every single person know."
Like every other aspect of the team’s system, the players have learned to adapt. They are no longer looking for stability in linemates and understand that their ice time is liable to vary on a given night.
There is also a heightened level of comfort with the way Boucher wants them to play – an extremely structured and controlled style that lessens the need to understand the individual traits of the players you’re skating beside.
"Everybody’s got a little chemistry but within our system everybody can play into any line, right?" said Ryan. "You know where you’ve got to be so it doesn’t change much, the reads don’t change."
"We all know the system," added Pageau. "Which line you’re on, it’s not a different system, a different way to forecheck or a different way to backcheck or do all the little things. It doesn’t really change a lot."
All that changes are the combinations that get tossed over the boards.
Again and again.