There are several debates that NHL fans love to have. One of the most common disputes occurs over which team in the league has the top third line. It can be a difficult thing to narrow down since different lines are responsible for distinct things on particular teams, but the Detroit Red Wings have stumbled onto a deadly combination.
There’s no way to overstate how important scoring depth is in the NHL. The Pittsburgh Penguins roster Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz and Phil Kessel and they are still looking for more goals from the bottom six.
When Detroit is able to roll out lines centered by Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk before getting to Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist and Riley Sheahan, it makes the team difficult to match up with. These aren’t the lines that head coach Jeff Blashill started the season with, but the top nine’s evolution has been interesting to track.
Datsyuk was able to make his season debut on November 13 against the San Jose Sharks. It didn’t take long for the bench boss to slide Brad Richards over to the right side on the second line, adding Darren Helm to the line as well. Datsyuk and Richards have clicked, allowing Blashill some freedom in piecing together a third unit.
The move with Richards freed up the third-line center spot, which is where Sheahan slid in. Tatar and Nyquist have been playing with Sheahan since November 20, helping propel the Red Wings to an 11-game point streak. The trio has been together for nine of those contests, and have consistently been among Detroit’s best players.
“They have played very well together,” Blashill told Helene St. James of The Detroit Free Press. “It’s been a line that seems to be forming chemistry … with that line staying intact – part of that, too, is allowing them to grow into a go-to type line.”
Where former head coach Mike Babcock typically balked at giving young players responsibility, Blashill is familiar with these three. He spent time coaching them with the Grand Rapids Griffins and believes that they can all be “go-to” type players. Nyquist has established himself as a high-end NHL contributor — he’s 65th in the NHL in points per game since 2013-14 — while Tatar approached 30 goals last year.
Sheahan doesn’t have the same offensive ability as his two linemates, but he is the defensive catalyst that keeps Nyquist and Tatar flying up and down the wings. Those two are allowed to take more risks because they know their center will be playing it safe and helping in the neutral in defensive zones.
This line isn’t expected to do heavy lifting in the defensive zone like some third lines. It seems that Blashill simply wants all of his groupings to be capable of handling situations in all three zones, but he’s leaning on these three for offense. Even late in games, which was the case on Tuesday against the Washington Capitals. The third line made a late push but couldn’t find the back of the net before the horn sounded to end the period.
The Red Wings dropped the contest in a shootout, but still managed to keep the point streak alive. This recent string of play has pushed Detroit to second place in the Atlantic Division, trailing the Montreal Canadiens by six points. They have a chance to close that gap this evening as the Canadiens visit Joe Louis Arena for what should be a stellar contest.
Just like the Capitals, Montreal is one of the strongest teams in the Eastern Conference and will be another stern test for the Red Wings. The Canadiens also feature an excellent third line in Tomas Fleischmann, David Desharnais and Dale Weise. This unit — along with the incredible play of Carey Price — helped Montreal get off the starting blocks fast and the rest of the Atlantic is still trying to play catch up.
The Red Wings’ push since the middle of November has them contending for the top seed in the Division, and the line of Tatar, Nyquist and Sheahan has been involved in all the right ways. Maybe Blashill ends up jumbling his lines as players get hurt or return from the IR, but there’s no denying that this trio has been among the NHL’s best third lines over the last few weeks.