By Jim Diamond
Midway through the third period holding a one-goal lead, and with a faceoff in the defensive zone, who to send out to take that draw was almost a no-brainer for new Predators head coach Peter Laviolette.
Known as one of the NHL’s best in the faceoff circle, Paul Gaustad is often called upon to take draws in the shadow of his own net, and more often than not, telling him he is up is the right call.
But in Thursday night’s season opener, Gaustad did more than just win the defensive zone faceoff. Just a few seconds after winning it and then a turnover forced by Filip Forsberg, Gaustad was carrying the puck into the Ottawa zone on what was basically a 2-on-0 with linemate Eric Nystrom. Gaustad sent a pass from the right side across the low slot to Nystrom, who made no mistake in recording his first goal of the season.
“Filip did a good job of creating the turnover and that’s where it started really,” Gaustad said. “Bobby really got a step on the guy. He made a great shot to put it in too.”
Gaustad was fourth-best in the NHL in faceoff win percentage last season at 58, and his picked right back up Thursday, winning 14 of 17 for a bawdy 82% success rate.
All but two of Gaustad’s Thursday night faceoffs came in the defensive zone. Winning 12 of 15 draws backed up in your own end is pretty impressive.
“Like tonight, he was taking all of the really big faceoffs,” Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne said. “It was really nice to see Goose get rewarded. He does a lot of dirty work. He kills penalties, takes the most important faceoffs, and those other stuff that a lot of people don’t notice, but to us, he is a really important player.”
Nystrom often gets the calls alongside Gaustad for the defensive zone draws, but he knows his center’s abilities mean they can go from defense to offense very quickly.
“I know exactly where to go because I know he is going to win it a lot of the time,” Nystrom said. “That’s huge having the confidence in your centerman to win faceoffs because that is starting with the puck. There is nothing more frustrating when you have faceoffs and you are losing them constantly and you are chasing the puck. That’s what he does and that’s what he is great at.”
Less than a minute and a half before Nystrom’s goal, Gaustad picked up the secondary assist on Shea Weber’s first goal of the season.
After the game, Laviolette deflected any attention away from his first win at the helm of the Predators.
“Honestly, I’m happy for the guys and I’m happy for Nashville and the fans,” he said. “You want to come to your home opener and be successful for everybody. It’s a special night because it’s the first game, it’s in our building, there’s new players here; there’s a lot of new players, not just a new coach. There’s lots of people that were added.”
Gaustad’s only offensive zone faceoff came with just over 10 seconds remaining in the third and the Predators protecting their 3-2 lead. He won that one and Ottawa eventually tried a Hail Mary shot at the end that sailed wide. As the final horn sounded, the puck ricocheted off the end boards and drifted toward center ice. The Nashville players emptied off the bench onto the ice to congratulate Rinne on the win. Gaustad followed the puck, picked it up with his glove, and then joined the celebration.
The puck was for Laviolette. While the coach didn’t want any of the attention of the win on himself, Gaustad made sure he had a reminder of the milestone event.
“Yeah, that was the first win as a team and as a unit that we are building here,” Gaustad said. “It was important for us to get that first win and that puck.”