Undrafted Rookie Gaudreau has Two Goals in Cup Final; Zolnierczyk’s Speed Helped Change Game Three
by John Glennon @glennonsports / email@example.com
When all the available Predators on the playoff roster are practicing, there are one too many players for Nashville’s locker-room stalls.
The solution is that one player – the one with the least amount of NHL experience – sits in a wooden chair by himself, looking just a little bit like the misbehaving school child who’s been placed in timeout.
On Friday, just over 24 hours before he would play in his third Stanley Cup Final game, it was Predators forward Frederick Gaudreau who held the special spot. Hordes of NHL media members maneuvered around Gaudreau in the locker room, usually en route to interviewing one of his bigger-name teammates.
“Yeah, that’s just the way it is,” a smiling Gaudreau said of the little chair he occupied. “I know it’s nothing against me. To be honest, I could be sitting on the floor, and I’d really be happy to be here.”
Humble as his homemade locker may be, Gaudreau has made it quite clear he’s not just taking up space in these NHL playoffs.
It was Gaudreau who – 6:33 into the second period of Game 3 on Saturday – wired a wrist shot over Matt Murray’s shoulder to put the Predators up 2-1 over Pittsburgh. That goal would turn out to be the game-winner, as the Preds blasted the Penguins 5-1 and trimmed Pittsburgh’s series lead to 2-1.
Gaudreau now has a team-best two goals for the Preds in the Stanley Cup Final, which resumes Monday at Bridgestone Arena.
All of this understandably still seems a little bit surreal to Gaudreau, an undrafted 24-year-old who’d only played nine NHL games – and never scored an NHL goal – before this season’s playoffs.
“It’s a little hard to believe sometimes,” Gaudreau said. “But I’m just trying to focus on my job. It’s easy to go crazy about all that stuff, but at the end of the day, I’m just adjusting and keeping my focus on the ice.”
Perhaps we should start expecting more of the unexpected from Gaudreau, who scored 25 goals for the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals this season.
It was Gaudreau, after all, who made a major impact in his very first NHL playoff game just a couple of weeks ago. With Ryan Johansen freshly injured, Gaudreau brought a polished presence to his postseason debut, winning 10-of-14 faceoffs in a critical Game Five win against Anaheim.
“I think he’s surprising everybody how good he is,” Predators forward James Neal said. “He’s calm and collected. He’s a young kid in a huge, crazy atmosphere, a huge time with the Cup Final. He’s done an unbelievable job.”
Nashville, TN – June 3: Justin Schultz #4 of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Harry Zolnierczyk #26 of the Nashville Predators battle at the boards during the second period of Game Three of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Bridgestone Arena on June 3, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Nashville, TN – June 3: Justin Schultz #4 of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Harry Zolnierczyk #26 of the Nashville Predators battle at the boards during the second period of Game Three of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Bridgestone Arena on June 3, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. Joe Sargent
Gaudreau wasn’t the only unlikely hero on the Predators’ re-configured fourth line to make a significant impact in Saturday’s victory.
High-energy Harry Zolnierczyk returned to the Nashville lineup for the first time since May 16 and brought his usual blend of speed and tenacity. Zolnierczyk’s wheels forced a holding call on Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz early in the second period, which led to Roman Josi’s game-tying power-play goal and a huge wave of golden momentum.
The 29-year-old Zolnierczyk, who played only 24 regular-season games for the Preds, also added three hits on Saturday – second-most on the team. An interesting stat to note on Zolnierczyk: The Predators are 8-1 in the postseason when he’s been in the lineup.
“Harry is such a positive, energetic guy,” Predators forward Colton Sissons said. “Whenever he comes into the lineup and plays, he has a big impact on our group, not only on the ice but off the ice. He works his tail off, he skates hard and he plays fast.”
Added Predators Head Coach Peter Laviolette: “Harry was terrific. When Harry comes into the lineup, he brings speed, he brings energy, he brings physicality.”
The contributions of unheralded players like Zolnierczyk and Gaudreau are illustrative of the team-wide playoff contributions for the Predators, who’ve had 19 players score goals through 19 postseason games, two players shy of tying the NHL record.
In the aftermath of the Preds’ big win on Saturday, a media member looked for Gaudreau at his familiar wooden-chair locker, the one set apart from teammates.
It turned out, however, that since there were fewer players to accommodate following a game than after a practice, Gaudreau got his very own traditional locker.
“When all the guys are around [in practice, the chair] is my seat,” Gaudreau said with a chuckle. “But some of the other guys weren’t playing tonight, so that gave me a good seat.”
What went without saying, of course, is that Gaudreau had very much earned his spot.