With their backs against the wall, and the wall on fire, the Nashville Predators were faced with their biggest challenge of their collective lives. Win, or go home.
The standing room only, sellout crowd at Bridgestone Arena was there for the team from the opening faceoff to the final whistle, and when all was said and done, the Preds skated off with a decisive 3-1 victory against the Anaheim Ducks.
This sets the stage for what should be a most entertaining Game Seven, to be played on Wednesday night in Anaheim (Broadcast scheduled to start at 9P Central time, with faceoff soon thereafter).
While the Ducks could not put the Preds away, the Blues dispatched the Stanley Cup Champions and chief Nashville rivals, the Chicago Blackhawks in a thriller in St. Louis. This means that, with the Los Angeles Kings having been bounced by the San Jose Sharks, there will be a new winner of the Stanley Cup in June. The Kings and Blackhawks have traded turns with the cup since 2012.
Not putting the cart before the horse, it remains to be seen if the Predators will grab the last spot up for grabs, or if the home team Ducks can rise to the occasion and rebound from a bitter Game Six loss.
The Ducks actually played well, and full marks go to Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne, who was called upon to out play Duck netminder Freddie Andersen, and he did. Rinne made 26 saves, including an incredible point blank attempt by Corey Perry with less than seven minutes remaining in the game. When Perry found himself all alone in front of the Preds goalie, you could hear the collective crowd hold their breath for that split second, and then an exhale of joy as the puck was harmlessly deflected aside as play continued. Anaheim outshot Nashville 27-26.
On the up-side, forward Craig Smith returned to the lineup after a two game absence due to injury, and provided solid play throughout the game, but it was an early Game 6 injury to Cody Bass, a fourth line forward, that may have been the biggest key to the victory.
With Bass out, Coach Laviolette was forced to do some juggling with his remaining eleven forwards. He double shifted Calle Jarnkrok with Bass’ linemates, Paul Gaustad and Miikka Salomaki. Midway through the second period, with that line on the ice, the Preds tenacious forecheck led to mayhem in the Duck zone, and Jarnkrok, from behind the net distributed the puck to defenseman Mattias Ekholm, who skated out front and beat Andersen for the game’s first goal. Later in the period Ryan Johansen threaded a perfect pass to James Neal, who essentially looked at an empty net for the tap in, and the 2-0 Preds lead.
A questionable penalty to Ekholm in the final minute of the period led to Anaheim’s lone tally, on the power play, with just 14 seconds to go in the frame.
The Preds came out for period three and finished the job at hand. Shea Weber fired one from behind his blue line directly into the empty Anaheim net with ten seconds to go, sealing the win, and sending both teams packing for Southern California.
You can be pretty certain that the winner of this series remains in California, as the Sharks await this outcome and the commencement of round two.
While Nashville enters rarified air, they have never played a Game Seven, and up to last night, had never won an elimination game.
With one monkey off their backs, they go for the big gorilla on Wednesday night!
Updated series schedule:
April 15, 2016: Nashville 3, Anaheim 2 (NSH leads series 1-0)
April 17, 2016: Nashville 3, Anaheim 2 (NSH leads series 2-0)
April 19, 2016: Anaheim 3, Nashville 0 (NSH leads series 2-1)
April 21, 2016: Anaheim 4, Nashville 1 (Series tied 2-2)
April 23, 2016: Anaheim 5, Nashville 2 (ANA leads series 3-2)
April 25, 2016: Nashville 3, Anaheim 1 (Series tied 3-3)
April 27, 2016: Nashville at Anaheim – 9 PM CT