In what could only be described as the biggest single victory in franchise history, the Nashville Predators shook off three consecutive losses to defeat the Anaheim Ducks at Bridgestone Arena on Monday, and proceeded to wrap up the series in dramatic style with a heart-stopping 2-1 win in Southern California on Wednesday night.
While Anaheim had lost their last three Game 7’s, this was a first for the Predators, and they went into it with an attitude that could only be described as confident. Belief in the systems put forth by Coach Peter Laviolette and his staff, the Predators only had to rely on their goaltender being superlative, and the defensive corps operating as a close knit unit that would smother and shut down the high powered offense of the Ducks.
Once again, the unsung heroes took center stage, as it was Colin Wilson starting the scoring with an unassisted goal at the 6:19 mark of the first period. Wilson seemingly passed to himself, courtesy of the back of Anaheim defenseman Simon Despres, and then backhanded a puck past Duck netminder Freddie Andersen for the 1-0 lead.
The Predators increased their lead when Wilson fed Viktor Arvidsson behind the Duck net. Arvidsson passed the puck to the point where Shea Weber took a shot, deflected by Paul Gaustad and with just under sixteen minutes gone, the Preds were up by two.
No score in the second period, but Anaheim scored early in the third period, on the power play, as Ryan Kesler delivered the lone Duck tally to cut the lead in half. While the Ducks dominated play for the final forty minutes of the game, it was the goaltending of Nashville’s Pekka Rinne that delivered victory for the visiting underdogs from Tennessee. Rinne, having come off a statistically sub-par season, had played well in the three Nashville wins, but was decidedly shakier in the Anaheim wins, and knew that to steal a Game Seven, he’d have to be at his best, and he was!
Anaheim hit hard and came on strong over the final forty minutes, where the Preds were outshot 28-10. However, the Predators were also shot blocking machines against Anaheim, with the team credited with 24 blocks, including 7 by defenseman Roman Josi.
To summarize the seven game series: the best team on the ice won the first six games. Nashville took two on the road, and then Anaheim did the same. Game five was won by Anaheim in Anaheim, and with their backs to the walls, returning to Bridgestone Arena, Nashville grabbed game six, setting up last night’s epic matchup.
While Nashville won that first period by scoring two goals, and allowing none, it was the final forty minutes that showed them in a defensive posture, NOT because they decided to lay back and protect a two goal lead, but because Anaheim saved their best for last and totally dominated the Preds, keeping the puck in the Nashville zone for long stretches of time and stymieing any solid pushback the team could muster.
Good news, Preds fans. Rinne was the all-world goalkeeper the Nashville organization had come to rely upon for a decade, and when the final buzzer sounded, he was mobbed by his teammates, and accepted first star honors in front of a dejected Honda Center crowd.
What’s next? Round Two! The opponent? San Jose Sharks. Game One to be played in San Jose on Friday night, 9:30pm Central Time.
Don’t expect to see the writers picking Nashville to win this series, as the Sharks, again, come in with a higher seed, a sexier pedigree, and have veteran superstars like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski up front, along with All-Star defenseman Brent Burns and goaltender Martin Jones, acquired from Boston (via Los Angeles) before the start of the season.
While Nashville just slayed the team with the No. 1 Power Play and No. 1 Penalty Kill in the league, they go right back into the fire and face a team that was fourth overall in terms of goals scored, and the No. 3 Power Play to boot.
Expect Rinne to see the Shark offense come in waves, not unlike Anaheim. However, as Nashville kept Corey Perry and the Ducks pretty much at bay (Perry had just four assists, and the leading Duck scorers had five points each – Getzlaf and Silfverberg,) San Jose features Burns, who had eight points in round one, and Pavelski who scored five goals in their five game series with the LA Kings.
Old friend Joel Ward plays a big role within the Sharks offense, and former Pred Nick Spaling plays a pivotal role as a defensive forward for the team. Logan Couture, Joonas Donskoi and Tomas Hertl are solid offensive contributors, and Paul Martin, Justin Braun, Roman Polak and Marc-Edouard Vlasic are four shut-down defensemen, allowing Burns to rove almost as a forward (where he’s played in years past.) Burns will lead both teams in facial hair, as his playoff beard looks as if it was left over from last season when the Sharks did not even make the post-season. The toothless grin only adds to his lovable, and occasionally hate-able Neanderthal charm.
The Preds have a solid battle on their hands and will need to see more from the likes of Filip Forsberg (1 G, 2 A), Mike Ribeiro, Calle Jarnkrok and Mike Fisher (all of whom had just a single point in the seven games vs. Anaheim.) The dismal power play, which netted just one goal in twenty-six tries, ranking them dead last among the sixteen teams that competed in round one.
We are down to eight teams, and the remaining matchups include a high-powered Pittsburgh facing Barry Trotz’ Washington team that has been a juggernaut all season long. The upstart Islanders, who defeated top seed Florida, move upstate to take on Tampa Bay, and have already beaten the Lightning in Game One. St. Louis, who knocked off Chicago in an exhilarating seven game series, faces Dallas, and our Preds v. Sharks, as previewed above.
Friday and Sunday in San Jose. Tuesday and Thursday (Both 8pm Central starts) at Bridgestone Arena. Keep it here! We are moving on!