Buffalo Sabres\' Tim Connolly (19) celebrates a goal. (CPimages/ AP Photo/David Duprey)
Silky smooth Tim Connolly is in the middle, sharp-shooting Ales Kotalik is on one wing, and rugged Adam Mair on the other. Just don't call them a fourth line, they don't like that.
"We definitely don't feel like a fourth line," Kotalik said Thursday after practice. "Look at the guys on this line, Tim Connolly, when healthy, is one of the best players in the league. He's one of the best skilled centreman, he's just unbelievable when you watch him.
"Adam Mair, if he got a regular chance to play big minutes, he would be a 15-20 goal-scorer. He has some great energy and playmaking abilities. I just can't say enough of these guys, I'm pretty happy I've been put with them. Even if our time is a bit limited on the ice."
Which is why they are, technically, the fourth line, because they play the least. But they make the most of their minutes, Kotalik scoring a big goal in Buffalo's 5-2 win over the New York Rangers in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series Wednesday night.
The goal came against the Rangers' No. 2 line of Martin Straka, Sean Avery and Brendan Shanahan.
"We play 30-35 seconds hard regardless of who we're out there against," said Mair. "When our line gets called, we get out and try to create some positive energy, try to create some chances and be responsible defensively as well."
Mair, who began his career as a Toronto Maple Leaf, is the closest thing to what a fourth-line player usually looks like, physical, responsible defensively, full of energy. But there he was Wednesday night in the second period feathering a pass just inside the Rangers blue-line to Kotalik for the Sabres' second goal. The 28-year-old Hamilton native is getting a kick out of playing with such talented linemates, one an American and the other a Czech.
"It's pretty easy when you have a talented guy like Tim Connolly up the middle," said Mair. "He draws a lot of attention from defensive players, he's so creative with the puck and he's a good competitor. And obviously Ales is a big body (6-1, 227 pounds), a guy that can skate hard who finishes his checks and has a great offensive weapon in his shot.
"We've enjoyed playing together. I think we've found a bit of chemistry, especially down low when we cycle the puck."
The talent the Sabres have on this line is just yet another reason why they'll be hard to beat in these playoffs. The Rangers, like most other teams, are predominantly a three-line club. Their fourth line consists of Blair Betts between Jed Ortmeyer and Ryan Hollweg - all checkers, not much offence there. They played 24 total minutes Wednesday, the Connolly trio around 34 minutes.
Like Kotalik, Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff also doesn't believe in the traditional labels and doesn't see the Connolly unit as a fourth line.
"I wouldn't want to put a number on the lines," Ruff said. "Can you say that the (Derek) Roy line is the second or third line for us when they've scored the most goals out of all of them? Just to use a quote from the Philly series last year, their goaltender said we had four No. 2 lines. And I pretty well look at it that way. We have lines that can compete at both ends, we have lines that are all pretty good at scoring."
Daniel Briere is between Jason Pominville and Jochen Hecht, Chris Drury centres Drew Stafford and Dainius Zubrus, Roy is between Thomas Vanek (two goals in Game 1) and Maxim Afinogenov and then there's Connolly's line.
No traditional checking line in that group, no real fourth line, no real top line - four No. 2 lines. The new NHL?
"I think the gamble for (Sabres GM) Darcy (Regier) and I was where the league was going through the lockout," said Ruff. "Was a so-called checking line going to be any good in the league anymore? Were you going to be able to throw guys over the boards and match lines and try to check night after night?
"We really felt that with the system we built playing in our own end that we could make every line responsible. We shouldn't have to worry about the other team's lines and if we built our lines sound enough that the other team should have to worry about us."
The only downside in the balanced, four-line attack, Ruff said, is if players overextend their shifts.
"Sometimes playing four lines can hurt you because in that type of rotation you can sit there for a couple of minutes," he said. "Our plan is to try and keep the shifts short and keep a very high energy level. If the shifts get too long, and it's something I harp on, it hurts us more than it helps us.
"You have to sacrifice at this time of year, sacrifice that little bit of individual ice time that allows that next line to get out there and be effective."