The Blue Jackets road-trip finale may not have gone as planned, but it's possible that John Tortorella and company found a line that could have success going forward.
The new-found fourth line, featuring Eric Robinson, Riley Nash, and Emil Bemstrom (oh my god can we call it the RNB line!?) was fantastic in Montreal, scoring the first goal of the game and generally out-playing their opponents, and quite frankly, expectations.
Per NaturalStatTrick, the line combo played a 5v5 team-low of 7:03. That's less than the Sonny Milano, Boone Jenner, Josh Anderson line (8:04), the Alexander Wennberg, Cam Atkinson, and Alexandre Texier line (12:22), and far less than the Pierre-Luc Dubois, Gustav Nyquist, and Oliver Bjorkstrand line, which received 13:52 time on ice.
First, let's talk about that goal.
Virtually every goal scored in hockey is because of a breakdown in coverage, and this is no different. At 0:05, Seth Jones creates space for Zach Werenski by drawing two defenders (both wingers, #40 and #41) sliding it back to where he came from. Werenski utilizes the space by doing what he's best at, which is shooting the puck.
The rebound sputters to the corner. If you freeze it at 0:07, you can see where the play goes awry for Montreal. Max Domi (#13) is checking Nash (look in the slot). The two wingers are responsible for the two Blue Jackets defensemen. That leaves a simple 2-on-2 with Bemstrom and Robinson against the two Canadiens' defensemen, Cale Fleury (#20) and Brett Kulak (#17).
Both Fleury and Kulak's head fixate on the puck in the corner. Because of Bemstrom's positioning (already in the corner), he has time to pick his head up and anticipate where the play is going. And as soon as the two Canadiens' defensemen pursue the puck - even for a split second - Robinson presents himself as a target and establishes inside positioning on Kulak. At 0:08, you can see that - int that split second - it's taken too long for Kulak to recover. The replay at 0:24-0:25 shows where Kulak forgot about protecting the net. As Jody Shelley says, he "gets forgotten about for a half a second".
It's easy to cherry-pick the goal and say that this line should stay together and should have played more in Montreal, but the data shows the line was the most productive by virtually every metric. They had:
- More shot attempts (nine) than any other line
- Less shot attempts against (three) than any other line
- A 75% shot attempts percentage, the only line with a positive rating
- A disadvantage by starting just 25% of their shifts with an offensive zone faceoff.
According to The Athletic's 10 Observations, the trio fared well in terms of game score (an all-encompassing metric), as Riley Nash (2.22) led the team, Eric Robinson (2.04) came in second, and Emil Bemstrom (1.93) was fourth.
That was Robinson's first game of the season. He looked solid. Bemstrom now has a quiet three-point streak, after starting the year with 0-4-4 in his first 15 games. Riley Nash, who was a healthy scratch a game ago in Colorado, looked like he should be a fixture in the lineup. I can hear the "sample size" groans right now, and trust me, I hear you. But it's not like any of the other lines have produced much to be optimistic about, in small or larger sample sizes.
Tortorella has admitted publicly, even as recently as this week's 'Timeout With Torts' with Bob McElligott, that he's not been pleased with three/fourth's of his lines - the exception being the Dubois, Nyquist, Bjorkstrand line. Not surprisingly, that line led the team in 5v5 ice, though it failed to produce a goal. All the while, Nick Foligno, Atkinson, Jenner, Wennberg, and other veterans have struggled to find their footing, so finding lines that can be confidently deployed in multiple situations would be a big win for a team still trying to find its way.
If this trio can become a trustworthy line that can play in all situations, it would be a huge boon for the team. And after one game, it's easy to be optimistic.