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New Forward Lines Bring Familiar Results

by Thomas Willis / Nashville Predators

"If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it."

That’s not a saying that gelled with Nashville Predators Head Coach Peter Laviolette, despite his team carrying a four-game winning streak into a Valentine’s Day contest with the New Jersey Devils. The coach’s hunch rang true as the Predators triumphed over the Devils 3-1 in front of 17,333 at Bridgestone Arena.

The Preds bench boss said Saturday morning he didn’t like the amount of time some of his forward lines had spent in the defensive zone during a recent stretch of games and that he wanted a “more-balanced attack” throughout his forward group. His subsequent tinkering on his forward units resulted in mixing point-producing players with a few forwards that needed an offensive jolt in their game.

“I think that 5-on-5 is an area that we needed to improve on the last two or three weeks, even though we were winning,” Preds forward Matt Cullen said. “It was more a matter of shaking it up and trying to generate a little more life to see if we could get something to go.

“A lot of times you just leave it alone, but I think that’s an example of us growing as a team. It’s an opportunity to say, ‘Let’s try it and see if it works.’... To see some new faces on the left and right can make a difference.”

Cullen, without a goal since Dec. 20, received a promotion to the second line alongside Mike Fisher (26 points in the last 31 games) and Craig Smith (five points in his last 14 games). Perhaps most shocking of all, was the team’s leading point scorer, Filip Forsberg, moving down to the third line and reuniting with former Milwaukee Admirals linemates Calle Jarnkrok (one goal in his last 15 games) and Taylor Beck (also with one goal in his last 15 contests).

The changes paid immediate dividends after the puck dropped to begin the Devils and Predators game.

Nashville pounded 20 shots on goal during the opening period, and Cullen got off the schneid with a tally at 8:49 of the first and Smith assisting for his first point in eight games.

“We had a great first period, I think we could have been up a few [more] there, their goalie made some great saves,” Beck said. “We stuck with it for a full 60 minutes. They had some chances in the second, but we really put it on in the third. We grabbed a couple there and that’s what we’ve been doing all year long it seems.”

The switch to a more even approach on the forward units also helped to frustrate the defensive, trap game played by the Devils. For example, with goal-scorers such as Colin Wilson, Smith and Forsberg spread across the top nine, the visitors were hard-pressed to match their best defenders against all of the Predators offensive threats. Wilson and Smith also tallied in the game with Wilson netting the game-winner at 16:33 of the third period.

“We have been winning so you don’t want to rock the boat when you are winning, so I let it go for a game and then two games,” Laviolette said. “If I was being honest, we had been playing hard the previous four games, but we weren’t on the attack like we were tonight. That’s who we are and how we got to this point in the season. I liked it; the guys responded well to it, they were open-minded. I thought it was our best 60 minutes in a while.

“You don’t know how it’s going to go tonight. Sometimes when you are cruising along you just want to stay the course and not rock the boat. But something told me it wasn’t right and the guys told me they felt the same way, like we weren’t on the attack. So, it’s just different and it is good to see different combinations, we had great balance tonight.”

The end result: an output of 38 shots on goal and two goals from a pair of players that were struggling to produce under the old forward lines. The most important result, however, is pretty clear: a fifth-consecutive victory and a five-point lead on the entire NHL.

“Sometimes you have to shuffle it up and good things can happen,” Smith said of the offensive production and win. “The change can help our overall methods this season which have been very effective.”

End Game:

Defenseman Mattias Ekholm returned after missing the last two contests with an upper-body injury. Preds blueliner Ryan Ellis joined the team at morning skate for the first time since suffering a lower-body injury in a Jan. 8 game against the Dallas Stars. Anton Volchenkov missed the contest (lower-body, day-to-day) and was replaced in the lineup by rookie Anthony Bitetto.

Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne notched 21 saves for the NHL-leading 33rd win of the season. The Finn also paces the League in goals-against average at 1.97 and is second in save percentage with .931. Rinne now has eight more victories than his win total (25) from the last two seasons combined.

The Predators are now 3-0-0 in their current four-game home stand and will play the final act against the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday. San Jose won the team’s only other meeting of the season to date by a 2-0 score at the SAP Center on Dec. 13.

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