Atlanta's Russian Express
The National Hockey League has built a solid foundation on great teams and greater players. In past years, the game has seen legendary performers and marvelous forward combinations. In the old six-team NHL, forward lines that could work in concert and produce goals on the ice were watched and admired.
In Atlanta, the Thrashers may have hit on just such a forward combination that could catapult them to the Stanley Cup playoffs after finishing out of contention the last several years. Russian born Ilya Kovalchuk, Nik Antropov, and Maxim Afinogenov have stirred up considerable excitement with their speed and exceptional skating, shooting, and passing skills, drawing comparisons with other great forward combinations.
In the 1940s, there was the Punch line in Montreal, featuring Maurice “Rocket” Richard, Elmer Lach, and Toe Blake.
The Boston Bruins had the Kraut line, showcasing German descendants Woody Dumart, Milt Schmidt, and Bobby Bauer.
In the 1950s, Detroit had the formidable Production line, starring Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, and Sid Abel.
In later years, the NHL got a chance to enjoy the Goal-A-Game line (GAG) with Rod Gilbert, Jean Ratelle, and Vic Hadfield of the New York Rangers.
One of the most exciting forward line combinations was the French Connection line, made up of French-Canadiens Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin, and Rene Robert.
Another combo that caught the public’s attention was the Los Angeles Kings' Triple Crown line with Marcel Dionne, Dave Taylor, and Charlie Simmer.
Team USA produced the Coneheads, featuring Mark Pavelich, John Harrington, and Buzz Schneider.
In each case, the catchy name of the line along with a flair for scoring goals made it easy to focus on the players and enjoy their electricity, pinpoint passing skills, and skating.
The opposition, for purposes of survival, designed defensive strategies to slow down or impede the productivity of these units. As far as the Thrashers are concerned, competing teams have now started to take notice and do just that.
The attribute all of these great forward combinations share are their uncanny ability to understand individual responsibilities and unselfishly contribute to the good of the line. Most also had a knack for knowing exactly where their linemates were on the ice at all times.
Typically there is a passer, a shooter, and a checker on the unit. The Thrashers are no exception; Kovalchuk is the shooter, Antropov is the passer and Afinogenov has been an effective checker. Each player is also capable of electrifying the crowd with their exceptional skating and puck handling skills while handling their individual duties.
Kovalchuk, who is in the last year of his contract, is the catalyst. Now captain of the team, he is scoring goals at over a goal-a-game pace and is a early contender for the Rocket Richard Trophy as the league’s top goal-scorer despite missing several games due to a injury. Barring anymore unforeseen injuries, Kovalchuk is on track to score 70-plus goals this season.
Kovalchuk got his hockey training playing for Moscow Spartak, a highly rated junior team in Russia, before being drafted by the Thrashers. Kovalchuk wears number 17, just like his idol, Russian Red Army superstar Valeri Kharlamov (deceased).
Nik Antropov played for the Moscow Dynamo as a junior before being drafted in the NHL by the Toronto Maple Leafs. In his three most productive seasons with them, he scored 18, 24, and 21 goals. He displayed National Hockey League skills, but never reached the plateau expected of him in Toronto. He played in New York for seven games, scoring two goals, prior to being picked up by the Thrashers.
So far this season, Nik is averaging an assist per game. “I’m just starting to get back in the groove [of playing center],” Antropov said in a recent interview. “It took me 12, 14 games just to get the feeling back, being on face-offs and stuff like that. It was quite an adjustment. I haven’t played center in the last six or seven years. But I’ve started to feel more comfortable and the team is winning. That’s most important.”
Even though Antropov has not scored any goals yet this season, his linemates are confident things will come around. “He’s a great player,” Kovalchuk said. “He’s going to get his goals too. If everybody keeps playing well, we’ll all get goals...He can play center and right wing. That’s why we are blessed.”
Maxim Afinogenov, the third member of the line, has produced 141 goals and 210 assists in 586 games playing for the Buffalo Sabres since being drafted from the Moscow Dynamo, like Antropov. He has scored consistently, registering a point per game with Atlanta. At 6’6", Afinogenov represents a formidable presence that causes defensemen problems trying to keep him out of the goal crease while also trying to keep an eye on his linemates.
One thing is without question; Ilya Kovalchuk, Nik Antropov and Maxim Afinogenov have provided the crowds at Phillips Arena a lot of excitement and hope of things to come. Now all they need is a catchy name! So whether they become the Russian Roulette Line, The Russian Express, or another name that describes them well, Thrasher fans will be looking for them to play and celebrate goals together.
The Detroit Red Wings' Production Line
The Production Line was the perfect name for this trio. Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay , and veteran Sid Abel were the marquee attraction throughout the 1950s.
Howe was a scoring star and gifted all-around player, Lindsay was the catalyst, displaying scoring skills combined with skating ability and a will to win that was almost unmatched. Sid Abel was the elder statesman, capable of pinpoint passing and relentless checking.
The line was considered the most effective of any for decades.
The Edmonton Oilers' Finnish Sandwich Line
The Oilers normally saw Gretzky paired with Juri Kurri and Esa Tikkanen. They were called the Finnish Sandwich line.
Of course, Gretzky was a scoring sensation, breaking a book full of NHL records and scoring over 200 points in a single season. Kurri was a mainstay on his line and even was acquired by Los Angeles when Gretzky was traded.
The bottom line is Gretzky and whoever his linemates were looked awful good.
The Montreal Canadiens' Punch Line
Maurice "The Rocket" Richard, Elmer Lach, and Toe Blake made up the Punch Line. It was a perfect name to describe what they did to the opposition. It was on the Punch Line that Richard set the NHL record for 50 goals in 50 games. In that same season, Lach got over 50 assists and Blake was widely recognized for his hustling, digging style.
The Punch Line was one of the all time greats.
The Boston Bruins' Kraut Line
The Kraut Line, featuring Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart, and Bobby Bauer, were a fearsome combination. They got their start playing in juniors together in Kitchener, Ontario and brought that cohesiveness to the NHL, where they continued to terrorize goaltenders until World War II interrupted their rein.
All three were of German descent, which is why they got their nickname "Kraut."
The Boston Bruins Top Line in the '70s
Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge, and Wayne Cashman were widely popular in the 70s. Although they did not have a name for their unit, they were always at the top of the NHL scoring race.
Esposito did not play the center position the same as his predecessors, instead having his wingers, Hodge and Cashman, feed him. Still, all of them regularly contended for a spot in the top ten in the NHL scoring race. Esposito scored 76 goals in 78 games, then a record no one thought would ever be broken. Hodge broke the 100-point, 50-goal plateau, as well. The Bruins have never had another line close to this one.
The Buffalo Sabres' French Connection Line
The French Connection. Gil Perreault, Rene Robert, and Rick Martin were simply incredible during their run. Perreault and Martin had known each other from playing for both Thetford Mines and the Montreal Junior Canadiens. Robert played against them while performing for Three Rivers in the QMJHL. Together the three were almost unstoppable.
Perreault was big and one of the best skaters and stick-handlers in the game fully able to lift spectators off their seat. Martin had a shot that struck fear into the goaltender and Robert could do anything that was needed with speed and skill to match his line mates.
The French Connection helped advance Buffalo into the Stanley Cup Finals against Philadelphia. They could not get the puck past Bernie Parent, but still go down as one of the best lines in history.
The Philadelphia Flyers' LCB Line
Reggie Leach, Bobby Clarke, and Bill Barber were a dangerous combo. Clarke and Leach had played together in juniors in Flin Flon, Manitoba, and Barber and Clarke jelled in the NHL.
Together they confounded the opposition with Clarke's relentless forechecking, combined with Leach's shot and Barber's all-around excellence.
The New York Islanders' Trio Grande Line
The Islanders produced awesome results, winning several Stanley Cups largely due to the play of Clark Gillies, Bryan Trottier, and Mike Bossy. The unit was finely balanced with Gillies handling the rough going and checking, Trottier setting up his wingers, and Bossy scoring goal after goal.
The unit was in perfect concert while on the ice together.
The Los Angeles Kings' Triple Crown Line
Dave Taylor, Marcel Dionne, and Charlie Simmer were dubbed the Triple Crown Line for good reason. The unit had several prolific seasons and was the first line that produced three 100-point producers in the same season. Dionne was the catalyst, utilizing his superb skating ability and playmaking skills to generate scoring opportunities. Taylor and Simmer were both skilled at filling openings and putting the puck in the net.
The Quebec Nordiques' Statsny Brother Line
It is not often that brothers get a chance to play together in the NHL. The Statsny brothers were lucky and good. The brothers played together on a line and produced some memorable goals, showcasing the artistry and camaraderie that they have shared since childhood. Peter, Anton, and Marian defined a new category for the term "close" linemates.
The Philadelphia Flyers' Legion of Doom Line
Mikael Renberg, Eric Lindros, and John LeClair made up the Legion of Doom line; aptly named because of the fear they put into goaltenders as they skated into the opposition's zone.
Lindros was as talented as he was fierce, while Leclair and Renberg displayed excellent offensive skills. The unit was almost instantly effective and took Philadelphia on a run to the Stanley Cup.
The Montreal Canadiens' Donut Line
The Montreal Canadiens won several Stanley Cups supported by the play of Guy Lafluer and Steve Shutt. The line also featured both Peter Mahovolich, and later Jacques Lemaire.
Lafluer was a dominant force with speed and a rocket shot. Shutt was deceptively quick with a wide array of shots in his arsenal. Mahovolich still holds the record for most assists and most points by a centerman. Lemaire, a converted defenseman, had excellent speed and puck-handling skills, but could also put the puck in the net when called on. Shutt once referred to the line as "The Donut Line" because it had no center.
The New York Rangers' GAG ( Goal-A-Game) Line
Vic Hadfield, Jean Ratelle, and Rod Gilbert were highly effective in the toughest media center of the world.
The line featured the handsome Rod Gilbert, who filled the stadium with his skillful play. Linemate Jean Ratelle, who played with Gilbert in juniors, was a star centerman capable of passing the puck in the smallest of openings, or scoring himself. Vic Hadfield was a gritty winger with great leadership ability and a knack for the net.
The GAG line continuously struck fear in the hearts of the opposition.
Unfortunately, the Bruins had the Esposito line and Bobby Orr, a combo that the Rangers could not overcome.