There are lines with more flash. More pizzazz. More razzmatazz.
But when it comes to overall effectiveness, the forward combination of Joe Gambardella-Brad Malone-Patrick Russell is second to none.
At least that’s the opinion of Condors coach Jay Woodcroft.
“I believe that that line can play against any line in the American Hockey league and end up on the positive side of the chance ledger,” Woodcroft said. “I think when they’ve played together this year they’re one of the best 200-foot lines in the American Hockey League.”
Certainly the numbers back up Woodcroft.
Gambardella leads the team with 16 points (8 goals, 8 assists) in 19 games; Malone has 14 points (5 goals, 9 assists) in 18 games and Russell, who has played six games with the Edmonton Oilers, has 11 points (5 goals, 6 assists) in 12 games.
Those are certainly stout offensive numbers, but the plus/minus numbers show defensive responsibility as well. Russell leads the team at plus-11, Gambardella is second at plus-nine and Malone is third at plus-seven.
“They play a full 200-foot game, they understand each other and play to each other’s strengths,” Woodcroft said. “They work for each other, they spend the majority of their shifts in the other teams’ zone, and they take pride in the little details that go into winning hockey.
“And for me, they have set the tone for our entire team. All three of them are selfless. All three of them are industrious workers. All three of them are team-first people. I couldn’t be more proud of that line.”
The line was put together in training camp and had stayed aligned until Russell’s strong play earned him his first NHL call up on Nov. 15.
Russell returned to the Condors for a game against Manitoba last Saturday night and the reunited line picked right back up where they left off. Russell scored the second goal with Gambardella and Malone recording the assists.
“It’s two great players I’m playing with,” said Russell, 25, who is a third-year pro. “We all complement each other. We know which way we’re moving and everything. We’re kind of similar players but we all do our work and that helps each other.”
Gambardella, in his second season, is already nearing his entire point total for his rookie season (19 in 50 games).
“Going home this summer I tried working on my skating, working on getting a quicker release and I think I was able to accomplish those,” said Gambardella, who turned 25 on Thursday. “I’m still not satisfied. I still want to keep going in the upward direction and I think Malone and Russell have helped me take a step up in my confidence level.
“(Malone) is a huge factor. He makes you feel comfortable. He lets you know what your role is and when you’re doing it well. And if you’re not having the best of games he’s there to pick up you up. Same goes for Russell, too. I kind of think we pick each other up when we’re down. I think that’s what helps connect us so well. Off-ice chemistry helps build that as well.”
Malone, at 29, is the oldest forward on the team and is perhaps playing the best hockey of his career, now in his eighth year. The veteran brings a wealth of experience to a young team — 183 games in the National Hockey league and 310 at the American Hockey League level.
“As the older one I might get a little more credit, but it’s not like I have to go grab those guys and ask them to do something that’s out of their reach,” Malone said.
As for why the trio works so well together, Malone said the similarity in play and attitude come into play.
“Relentless,” he said, describing the line. “We might not get all the pretty goals, but we’re trying to win faceoffs, get pucks deep and forecheck. I know that’s the cliche answer for people the last couple of years but that’s what we’re trying to do.
“We want to be hard to play against, within the rules. You don’t have to be overly physical or overly tough but you can skate with players, check above them and get the puck back and send it back in their end. The high-end skill guys, they say they don’t want to play in their own zone. They want to have the puck. When we have it, the advantage is to us.”
Woodcroft said the effectiveness of the Malone line has helped other players as well.
“They’re the leaders of our team up front,” he said. “The way they play allows some of our younger skilled guys to do their thing as well. That line eats a lot of hard minutes for our team.
“We’re where we’re at because of their leadership up front.”