Smith Scores Twice, Preds Top Blue Jackets

Craig Smith found the back of the net twice in the third period, and the Nashville Predators defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets 4-3 at Bridgestone Arena on Thursday night. The final game before the All-Star break, the result gives Nashville points in five straight and 56 points overall with a 7-1-1 mark in their last nine outings.

“I think we’ve turned a corner here a little bit,” goaltender Pekka Rinne said. “I feel like throughout the season we’ve been finding consistency and, as of late, with the way we’ve been playing, even with our losses, I feel like we’ve been pretty happy with our games. That’s a big thing for us, finding the right time in the season and that has put us in a good spot in the standings, too. We have to respect and protect that position now.

Columbus entered the second period with a 1-0 lead, but goals from Calle Jarnkrok and Harry Zolnierczyk gave Nashville their first lead of the night, and then Smith tallied twice in the third before Nashville staved off a final push to seal their 24th win of the season.

“It shows our determination just to stick with it there,” Zolnierczyk said. “That’s one of the best teams in the NHL right there, and we knew they weren’t going to go away regardless of if it was one goal, two or three they were going to keep coming and they did. At the end of the day we did our job and made sure we stayed on track and we got those two points.”

After going eight games without scoring a goal, Smith responded on Thursday night, tallying not once but twice in the third period, including the game winner, to lead the Preds to a win over the Blue Jackets.

“It felt good,” Smith said of the win. “We played desperate. I thought special teams was awesome tonight, and we really popped one in there. It’s been tough lately, but I thought the boys shot the puck really well and we really executed.

“It’s good to see him get going,” Preds Head Coach Peter Laviolette said of Smith. “It gets frustrating when there is a lot expected of you and you expect a lot of yourself too, as Craig does. When you are able to have a game like that and chip in some offense, it’s a good thing.”

Of his 12 games as a member of the Predators, Thursday night was arguably his best performance yet.

Harry Zolnierczyk did everything he usually does – using his tenacity to shut down the opponent and draw a penalty from time to time – but when he managed to just barely get a shot to trickle past Sergei Bobrovsky and over the line for his first of the season and first with the Preds, Zolnierczyk’s excitement came full force.

“It felt good, it’s been a while since I’ve had another goal in the NHL,” Zolnierczyk said. “It’s been over a couple years for sure. It always feels good to contribute.”

It was Zolnierczyk’s first goal since February of 2014, a long time coming, but one that was complimented by what he provides to his team, along with his linemates on the fourth unit, including Cody McLeod and Colton Sissons tonight.

“I think some of the things that I was able to do tonight are things that are a staple in my game,” Zolnierczyk said. “Being on the net fast and on the forecheck just comes with the linemates I’m playing with. Putting the puck in the right position that we were able to forecheck and ultimately keep it down there and create chances and play as little as we can in our zone. I thought we did that tonight.”

The last thing any of the Preds wanted to do was go into the All-Star break with a loss on their minds for the next four days. No problem there.

A 4-3 win over one of the NHL’s top teams isn’t a bad way to close out a nine-game stretch before the weekend that has seen the Preds go 7-1-1 and collect points in five straight games overall.

“It’s huge; it’s a big difference instead of losing this game and going to break,” goaltender Pekka Rinne said. “It’s a nice feeling, you can really relax and not think about hockey; get a few days off and recharge your batteries a little bit. Come back and be refreshed for the last stretch.”

On Thursday against Columbus, Ryan Johansen appeared in his 400th career NHL game.

The Predators are 55-19-7 all-time against the Blue Jackets, including 33-5-4 at home.

Preds defenseman P.K. Subban will head to Los Angeles for the 2017 NHL All-Star Weekend to captain the Central Division squad, but the rest of his teammates will enjoy the break, getting back together in Pittsburgh on Jan. 31 to face the Penguins.