The Blackhawks’ fourth line trio didn’t have their best performance in Chicago’s 4-3 win in Game 3 on Wednesday.
The trio of David Kampf, Ryan Carpenter and Matthew Highmore had just a 23.08 Corsi For rating and 22.22 percent shot share at five-on-five, and a 2.36 expected goals percentage (Natural Stat Trick) or somewhere in the low teens (Money Puck).
But despite only playing 7:38 one player stood out among the trio — Highmore.
The undrafted forward scored his first two playoff points of his career in only his third postseason game. He won a board battle to free the puck for Patrick Kane to set up Olli’s Maatta’s opening goal then he tied the game 3-3 with 5:17 remaining when he deflected Slater Koekkoek’s shot. Highmore’s second point made up for a costly turnover that led to an Oilers goal, and allowed the Blackhawks to come back and win.
“Obviously a couple tough bounces for our line,” Highmore said. “We wanted to get that back and to help the team. It was certainly on our mind and we wanted to create energy and I think we did that. As a group, our whole team got us a big win.”
Blackhawks coach Jermey Colliton spoke highly of the resolve from the fourth line during Game 3.
“They’ve been so good for us here and obviously they got scored on a couple times and that’s something they take pride in, being strong defensively,” he said. “I thought they got better as the game went on and they come through with a huge goal for us. Happy for them.”
For much of Games 1 and 2, the fourth line was arguably the Blackhawks’ best trio. They had a 61.54 CF% and 61.54 percent shot share in 15:26 at five-on-five, and didn’t allow a goal, despite playing against Oilers stars Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid frequently.
The line had usually done what the Blackhawks’ fourth lines under Joel Quenneville did — match up well against the top competition and try to dominate that matchup. While the Oilers got some quality chances — 60 percent of high-danger chances and 58 percent of expected goals against Kampf’s line — they were still beaten back in terms of sheer chances.
This isn’t new to Highmore. In 53 minutes at five-on-five in the regular season, the trio had a 54.55 CF%, 54,55 percent shot share and 62.5 percent high-danger share, off just a 35.71 offensive zone faceoff percentage. Without Highmore, those numbers drop steeply to a 39.10 CF%, 33.8 percent shot share and 25.44 percent expected goal share in 75 minutes.
Highmore, however, has never had much high individual production. He had six points (two goals, four assists), 35 shots and 16 high-danger chances in 36 regular-season games. That comes along with a 42.5 percent shot share at even strength and a 44.88 percent expected goal share off a 48.89 offensive zone start percentage.
Yet Highmore can be a difference maker. It’s already clear he makes his line better, but he had 15 takeaways to only nine giveaways in the regular season and has shown an ability to help move the puck. He came up large for the Blackhawks in Game 3 because he’s grow into that role.
Highmore had seven points (three goals, four assists) in eight AHL games for the Rockford IceHogs before he injured his right shoulder and missed the majority of the 2018-19 season rehabbing from surgery. The season before, he had 43 points (24 goals, 19 assists) in 64 games as a rookie. This season, he had 12 points (four goals, eight assists) in 21 games, a .57 points per game mark, higher than all but two players — John Quenneville and Dylan Sikura.
Highmore has also shown an ability to be pesky, drawing eight penalties while taking just three. In the playoffs so far, he’s drawn one more.
Basically, Highmore does everything the Blackhawks need out of a fourth liner. He should stay for a while, as somebody who can help move the puck and come up big when it’s least expected.
And if he’s never more than that, so what? The Blackhawks will always have a fourth line in need of capable players. There have been players that have made careers out of fewer assets than Highmore has.
Highmore’s had a pretty good series so far and we’ll see if the fourth line can return to prominence in Game 4 against Edmonton on Friday. The Blackhawks lead the series 2-1, and they have the chance to eliminate the Oilers and advance to the playoffs for the first time since 2017 — the same year they first signed Highmore.
They’re likely glad they have Highmore there to help do it.