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Rocco Grimaldi Just Became an X-Factor

The smallest player in the NHL made quite a large contribution after being a late addition to the Game 2 lineup. Now healthy again, has he done enough to stay in for the Preds moving forward?

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Dallas Stars at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Rocco Grimaldi found out he’d be playing in Game 2 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals when he got home from Bridgestone Arena on Saturday morning.

What he didn’t really know is how much of a factor he would end up being in the Nashville Predators’ 2-1, overtime victory over Dallas on Saturday evening.

Grimaldi was inserted into the lineup after Brian Boyle was ruled out due to illness. It was only Grimaldi’s third playoff game in his career. He had played in two postseason contests with Florida in the 2016 playoffs, but to him, it felt like another debut.

“I was extremely excited,” Grimaldi said. “I haven’t played a playoff game in four years or whatever the case and I only played a couple then, so basically I’ve been waiting my whole life for this.”

And, although he only played 9:29 of the 65 minutes contested in Game 2, those minutes proved to be some of the most meaningful for any Nashville skater. Grimaldi likely would have gotten more ice time had the Predators not spent so much time killing penalties earlier in the contest.

“Once we did get clear of the penalties, it seemed that whoever [Calle] Järnkrok and Rocco played with, that was a good line.” Laviolette said. “So Rocco was a big part of that. He used his speed and tenacity, got the puck into the right zone and used his speed to create.”

As the Predators trailed 1-0 in the second period, Grimaldi found himself in front of Stars goalie Ben Bishop and Austin Watson found him from behind the net to set up the game-tying goal.

“[Calle Järnkrok] brought the puck up the wall—he valued possession—threw it down low to Watty, and Watty’s so dangerous below the goal line with his size, he took it to the net and I happened to be there and I was uncovered for whatever reason. Bishop was sliding from left to right and I put it by him.”

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Dallas Stars at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Grimaldi had been unavailable for the previous seven games since suffering an upper-body injury in the Predators’ 5-0 loss at Winnipeg on March 23.

“Obviously I was well-rested being out for a few weeks and not healthy again,” Grimaldi said. “I got the call that I was going to be playing and I just wanted to do whatever I can to help this team get a win every night I’m in there.”

What Grimaldi brings to the table is clearly evident any time he’s on the ice. His speed is nearly unmatched and his work ethic unmistakable. He is cut from the same cloth as Viktor Arvidsson in the hustle department, too.

Just because he’s the NHL’s shortest player at 5-foot-6 means nothing to him or his teammates, because he makes a difference when he’s in the lineup. It might make for a fun picture, but it makes life harder for opposing defenders.

“[Grimaldi] was great,” Roman Josi said. “Not just the goal…he uses his speed. He’s extremely fast and he works hard every shift. He’s hard to play against for defensemen, because he’s so quick and I thought he had an amazing game.”

Remembering how far he’s come has served as a constant reminder of what it takes to not only be on an NHL roster, but stay there as well. At 26, he’s still learning and improving, too.

“It’s taken me five years to become an NHL player and I’m still fighting to do that,” Grimaldi said. “So every game that I play—regular season, playoffs, whatever it is—I’m super excited to play. I know that I’ve come through a lot to get here. I know people have been pushing me through when I felt like I wasn’t going to make it and I wanted to give up. So, I loved playing for those people.”

And with the way his mom’s reactions went viral during the season, there’s no doubt that the excitement level was high in the family.

“I don’t even know,” Grimaldi said. “She probably was praying and thanking Jesus a lot. My mom—she’s a really cool gal. For my parents, the way they’ve supported me my whole life…I’m sure they’re at home just super excited. I texted them this afternoon, telling them that I was playing, and watching that, I’m sure they were really proud and having a good time.”

With Wayne Simmonds being injured, Grimaldi should have a chance to stay in the lineup should Simmonds miss more time. Now that he’s healthy, he should be in there anyway given that he brings what the Predators lacked in Game 1—speed.

His work effort and compete level—something the entire dressing room notices—might just be unmatched on the roster. In the playoffs, those hard workers can be the difference between getting to the next round and getting to the golf course.

Grimaldi got his chance and took advantage. He was one of the biggest reasons why Nashville tied the series in Game 2, and it will be an unpopular decision if he’s not in the lineup in Dallas.

The smallest player in the league can have a huge impact on the rest of this series. As long as he’s healthy, there’s no good reason for him to sit again.