VandyRadio Sports Director Max Herz is a credentialed media member for the Nashville Predators. He’ll be covering the team all season long, producing The Home Ice Advantage, an all-hockey radio show, every Friday at 5 PM on VandyRadio and writing about the team’s performance in his series of Fang Features. Follow him on Twitter @MaxHerzVU for Preds updates and inside access.
Teams that can trust and consistently use all four forward lines game after game are major Stanley Cup contenders. The Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings have proved this in recent seasons while navigating the highly competitive Western Conference.
New Nashville Predators Coach Peter Laviolette certainly knows what it takes to win in the NHL, already with one Stanley Cup to his name. After putting up a 2-0-1 mark on a season-opening homestand, Nashville’s new bench boss looked back on how well his team has used all four lines.
“The ice time distribution has been, I think, pretty evenly doled-out, and that’s based on the way the games have gone,” Laviolette said after practice Thursday. “We’ve been able to roll four lines and at times chew up the clock because of a lead or because of a game we’re in and not feel like we have to press.”
No matter where a player sits on the depth chart, every Predator has an equal adjustment to make in the new, offensive-minded system that Laviolette has introduced. Newcomer Derek Roy noted, “It’s good that we’re getting everybody involved. Every line’s going out and doing work and working at the system.” Defenseman Ryan Ellis thinks the ice time through three games has “let everyone experience the system for themselves with different line combinations and defensive pairings.”
The Predators best showed their understanding of the new system in the third period of Saturday’s 4-1 win against Dallas. Nashville used and leaned upon all four lines in that third period, scoring three goals to break a 1-1 tie.
“Everybody was dialed in, everybody was playing well,” said Laviolette on his team’s best period to date. By using all four lines, the message was to “just keep going over the boards shift after shift and try to play at a high tempo.”
That exemplary period of fast-paced hockey saw Paul Gaustad pick up the game-winning goal along with an assist, while fellow fourth-liner Eric Nystrom scored off Gaustad’s assist and picked up two helpers of his own. Taylor Beck saw plenty of meaningful ice time alongside the two veterans, picking up an assist on Gaustad’s goal by digging the puck out from behind the net.
After the win, Gaustad looked back on why the third frame was so successful. “I thought we did a great a great job of keeping our shifts short in the third period. I think our shift length dropped a lot in the third period which was huge for us because we rolled it over, the intensity got a little bit better, and we started taking the energy to them.” The Preds rolled four lines effectively, and pulled out a comeback win against a division rival because of it.
The fourth line’s performance earned the trio a starting nod in Tuesday’s game against Calgary, marking the third set of forwards out for the opening draw through three games. Nystrom believes that starting a game can benefit a line, despite holding no major influence on overall ice time. “You get a start, it definitely gets your energy up. Sometimes, it changes the energy a little bit. You don’t start the same line every time so guys are excited to get out there and get that first shift. It’s a good method.”
Another tactic employed by Laviolette to push each line to improve while developing chemistry is the continuity of linemates and defensive pairings in special teams scenarios. On many occasions, the Preds used their normal even strength lines and pairings while on the power play, and linemates have often played together on the penalty kill and in 4-on-4 situations.
“It definitely helps with communication, a lot of talk,” says Roy on continuity in special teams. “It doesn’t matter if it’s power play or penalty kill, as long as you familiarize yourself with your linemates and keep the communications line open and work hard for each other, good things will happen.”
Nystrom’s goal against the Stars came on a 2-on-1 with Gaustad while playing 4-on-4. Nystrom notes that skating with his familiar linemate “makes the game a lot easier to play and read.” With two fourth-liners on the ice in a 4-on-4 situation, some teams would have to slow the game down to prevent costly mistakes in open ice. Gaustad and Nystrom are so comfortable together that they experience no drop off in pace or scoring ability while lacking a third forward to help them.
“It’s a long season, so it’s nice to spread the ice time out,” Nystrom told me as the Preds finished up practice Thursday. “It’s huge to be able to roll four lines and have a team that’s deep because it is a long season and that definitely helps in the long run.”
Continuing to roll four lines should serve the Predators well as they not only hit the road for the first time this season, but also embark on their first set of back-to-back games in Winnipeg and Chicago this weekend.
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