The Nashville Predators have been built to win on speed and scoring, but it was the hard-hitting and energetic fourth line that brought them to life on Thursday in a 4-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Harry Zolnierczyk scored a key goal in the second period with his linemates, Colton Sissons and Cody McLeod, earning assists on the play. It was Zolnierczyk’s first goal since December 21, 2013, a fact not lost on the man affectionately known as “Harry Z.”
“It felt good,” he said. “It’s been awhile since my last goal in the NHL, it’s been over a couple years for sure. It always feels good to contribute.”
Zolnierczyk’s goal was typical for this Predators fourth line. It came from forechecking and crashing the net, generating energy and offense.
That was the key word to describe this fourth line: energy.
“They were awesome,” head coach Peter Laviolette said. “From start to finish, they brought energy, they moved forward, they put the puck in the offensive zone, they banged things around, they banged bodies, they went to the crease. [Zolnierczyk] got one, McLeod could have had one and they just bring good energy, good physicality, and they’re bringing some good offense too.”
Since acquiring McLeod earlier this month, the Predators have kept him on the fourth line and rotated players around him, including Zolnierczyk, Sissons and Derek Grant. Their play sparked a successful road trip and a three-point homestand.
No matter what combination is out there, this rejuvenated Predators fourth line brings the heat night after night.
“I think it’s just a good mix, regardless of who is on that line,” Zolnierczyk said. “It’s speed, physicality and kind of knowing our role. I don’t think we try and complicate it too much. We know what our job is as that fourth line and ultimately just to get pucks deep, create offense, create energy and we’ve been able to do that over the last few games.”
The 29-year-old Zolnierczyk is playing on the fifth team of his NHL career, and has played 12 games so far this season for the Predators. Laviolette had nothing but praises for the veteran forward.
“As far as Harry goes, he’s instant energy,” he said. “He moves, he’s fast, he plays the game fast, he rambles around and hits things and goes to the net. They provide good energy for our team.”
The Blue Jackets have been one of the best teams in the NHL this season, coming off of a 16-game win streak that nearly cracked the league record books. However, they also brought physicality to this game. Scott Hartnell and other Columbus players jawed with a few Predators players, and there were seven total penalties in the game.
When the opponent is so physical, the value of a fourth line like Nashville’s is incredibly high.
“There’s a lot of games like that, especially inside our division,” Laviolette said. “As things move towards the playoffs, I don’t think things are going to get easier, I think they’re going to get more physical and demanding. Guys like that can make a difference.”
At some points in this game, it looked as if the Predators would suffer the same fate they did on Tuesday when they blew a 4-2 lead in the final minutes against the Buffalo Sabres. The Blue Jackets cut their lead to 4-3 in the last few minutes of the third period, but the Predators did not relent and held on for the victory.
According to Zolnierczyk, they knew they had to finish this game on the right note.
“That just shows our determination to stick with it there,” he said. “Obviously, that’s one of the best teams in the NHL right there, and we knew they weren’t going to go away, regardless of whether it was one goal or two or three, they were going to keep coming, and they did. At the end of the day, we did a good job of making sure we stayed on track and we were focused to make sure we got those two points.”
The Predators will go into the All Star break with a 7-2-1 record in their last 10 games, and will remain in third place in the Central Division. With the stretch run beginning next week, the team wanted to finish the first half with style.
“Anytime you’re going into a break, you always love to go in there feeling good about the team,” Zolnierczyk said. “We’ve strung together some pretty good hockey over the last little bit here and picked up some big points on the road, putting ourselves in a playoff position, we had the slip last game, but we wanted to make sure we finished on a strong note, and I think we did that tonight.”
Nashville’s first game after the break is next Tuesday on the road against the Pittsburgh Penguins.