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Quenneville showing faith in Panthers' fourth line, and it's paying off

Acciari's gritty, pretty goal helps Florida take down Lightning

Florida Panthers center Noel Acciari gets around Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh during an NHL preseason game Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

SUNRISE, Fla. – With the first win of the season on the line, Florida Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville put out his version of the team's shutdown defensive unit. 

Clinging to a one-goal lead with 90 seconds to go against division rival Tampa Bay, Quenneville called on Florida's fourth line of Noel Acciari, Dryden Hunt and Colton Sceviour, along with the Aaron Ekblad-Mike Matheson defensive pairing, to secure the victory over the Lightning. 

It's not a big surprise, as removing Hunt from that group gives you Florida's current top penalty killing foursome, but it does show who Quenneville currently trusts the most in that situation. 

Of course, things can change as the season goes on, especially in this case, as the new coaching staff is likely still getting a feel for the roster. 

It's also nice to see that Florida's top defensive line is going to chip in offensively, something normally considered a luxury from the bottom forward group. 

"You (love to) see those guys battling so hard and getting goals for us," Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said after the win. "We're a four-line team. It doesn't matter who scores. Everybody needs to play the same type of game, just like we did today."

Saturday's fourth-line goal came courtesy of Acciari, and it was a perfect encapsulation of what he and his fellow thumpers are capable of bringing the Panthers.  

Forechecking behind the net midway through the second period, Acciari put Lightning defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk onto the seat of his pants and made a beeline for the net. 

Hunt swooped into the corner and quickly fed the puck to Sceviour along the boards.

The puck was on Sceviour's stick for less than a second before he slipped it to Acciari in front of the goal while being knocked to the ice by Tampa's Steven Stamkos. 

Acciari made a couple quick moves, prompting Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy to hug the near post. 

Then all it took was a quick drop of his right shoulder and a backhand into the top corner of the net, as the goaltender was leaning the wrong way. 

"It was a huge goal," Quenneville said. "(Acciari) gives us a lot of different elements to our team game as far as playing the system to a tee. He's a hard worker and physical, and the patience on that play was a bonus. He played a lot of key minutes for us tonight."

It was a gorgeous goal from start to finish, and one that you normally wouldn't expect from the 10th, 11th and 12th forwards on the roster. 

Perhaps it's time to change those expectations. 

In recent years, it had been Sceviour who provided a scoring boost to the fourth line. Now, offensively, he's even par with his linemates, at best. 

That's not a knock on Sceviour. 

It's what is unique about this version of Florida's fourth line: There is a (relative) ton of offensive skill to go with the built-in defensive responsibility. 

He'd probably never admit it, but you can see how this could become Quenneville's favorite line. 

It was clear during training camp that Quenneville was very happy with the group, detailing the things he liked about it.

It's filled with prototypical Q guys: tough, quick, responsible, good in tight spots and along the boards and with motors that never stop running. 

It's versatility that Quenneville saw in the trio from the start of training camp. 

"With (Acciari's) line, we've had some options as far as their role and the effectiveness it can give our team," Quenneville said in late September. "It's something that gives us a little bit more balance, whether they're going to be playing a lot of defensive roles and faceoffs in our own end (or providing some offense)."

We'll end on this note. 

Just looking at even-strength minutes, the fourth line combined to play 37:52 Saturday night against Tampa, while the third line, comprised of Frank Vatrano, Henrik Borgstrom and Jayce Hawryluk, was on the ice for just 30:41.

It will be something to keep an eye on as the season progresses, but it's clear, at least for now, who Quenneville is entrusting with the game's biggest minutes.  


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