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THN.com Blog: How third lines help win championships

Manny Malhotra is winning 67 percent of his faceoffs this season. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Manny Malhotra is winning 67 percent of his faceoffs this season. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

With a Hart Trophy winner, his identical twin, a Selke finalist and a perennial Vezina candidate already in the lineup, the Vancouver Canucks’ main goal in the off-season was to bulk up a third line that on many nights was outworked and overmatched in 2009-10 – especially when they met the Chicago Blackhawks in the post-season.

Sure there was buzz around creating a new defense – with Keith Ballard being brought in for some spare youth parts, Dan Hamhuis coming in from free agency and Kevin Bieksa a hot rumor mill topic throughout the summer – but it was the third forward unit that needed to be upgraded most. On many nights having Kyle Wellwood as the third pivot wasn’t good enough against bigger, stronger and much more aggressive grind lines.

The Canucks are rich on the wings, so last year we saw a number of them take to the third line. From Mason Raymond, Mikael Samuelsson and Pavol Demitra to Jannik Hansen, Steve Bernier and Michael Grabner, all sorts of players filled that hole.

But when the team inked faceoff whiz Manny Malhotra for three years this summer, it finally got the gritty, responsible and prototypical third-liner it had missed so dearly in two playoff exits at the hands of Chicago.

To be sure, it’s the top two lines that lift a team and give it a credible lineup, but don’t underestimate the third unit, because you don’t win without a reliable one. Think back to past champions Detroit (Kris Draper), Dallas (Guy Carbonneau), New Jersey (Bobby Holik) and even recent winners Pittsburgh (Maxime Talbot or Jordan Staal) and Chicago (John Madden) and they all had third-line pivots who could 1) play strong and effective defensive hockey, including on the penalty kill and 2) win faceoffs.

This is why players like Madden ($1.25 million), Dominic Moore ($1.1 million) and Rob Niedermayer ($1.25 million) still earn contracts of considerable value on the free agent market while more one-dimensional players like Brendan Morrison, Slava Kozlov and Jonathan Cheechoo have to take tryout contracts or head to Europe.

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While Bernier would have been nice to keep around to play alongside Malhotra and there was talk Cody Hodgson may start the year there, having veteran Peter Schaefer, or even Samuelsson, Raffi Torres or Alex Burrows – if Raymond keeps clicking with the Sedins – on the third line provides the Canucks with a much better trio than they iced all last season. Even Hansen is proving to be more capable defensively and the presence of Malhotra will help push that along.

In fact, the improved third line is a big reason why Vancouver is considered Cup favorites by most. Think of Adam Burish, Troy Brouwer and Dave Bolland on the Hawks, or Ian Laperriere, Darroll Powe, Blair Betts and even Ville Leino or Claude Giroux on the Flyers last season: Were Wellwood, Demitra and Hansen really ever going to match that tenacity? I think not.

In golf, people stand in awe of the big drive that sails through the air and seems to go on and on forever – it’s the most attractive part of the sport. And while being able to hit it long puts you ahead in the game, it’s the little things like putting and chipping that make the biggest difference in your score.

Drive for show, putt for dough.

With their glamour guys the Canucks have all the show they need, so they spent the summer putting together a third line they hope will finally bring home the dough after 40 years.

Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com's web editor. His blog appears Tuesdays only on THN.com.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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