They’re celebrating in Music City tonight with good reason. In what’s sure to be a wild scene in Nashville, the Predators made history by reaching the franchise’s first Stanley Cup Final. They earned it by showing true grit and determination to beat the Ducks 6-3 to take Game 6 in front of a rabid home atmosphere to win a hard fought Western Conference Final.
It truly is a special time to be a hockey fan in a unique non-traditional market. In defeating the top seeded Blackhawks, the higher seeded Blues and the second seeded Ducks, the Predators become only the third team to make the Stanley Cup Final as an eight seed. They join the Flyers and Kings. Philadelphia was coached by current Nashville coach Peter Laviolette, who made a bit of history in becoming the fourth coach to guide three different teams to the Final. He won it all with the Hurricanes in ’05-06 while winding up runner up in ’09-10 in a six-game loss to the Blackhawks.
The Preds did it despite being largely outplayed by a relentless Ducks who were playing for their playoff livelihood. They outshot the Predators 41-18 and held them to just eight shots the first two periods. But trailed on the scoreboard 2-1 entering a wild and unpredictable third.
Nashville built a early two-goal lead thanks to goals from unsung heroes Austin Watson and Colton Sissons. Watson got to Ducks Game 6 starter Jonathan Bernier 1:21 in. Subbing for injured starter John Gibson, who coach Randy Carlyle later revealed had a hamstring injury sustained during the first period of Game 5 in which he exited, Bernier wasn’t sharp from the outset. He should’ve had Watson’s goal created off a Nashville face off win.
The Ducks had already come out flying testing Pekka Rinne early and often. But Rinne was sensational throughout stopping all dozen of Anaheim’s shots en route to 38 saves. His superior play in net along with Nashville’s supporting cast was the difference in a ultra competitive physical series that inflicted pain and casualties on both sides.
Nashville was able to win the final two games without top center Ryan Johansen and captain Mike Fisher. Johansen had hip surgery and will not play in the Stanley Cup. He was on crutches during the on ice celebration that include a nice photo op with the Clarence Campbell trophy which a limping Fisher didn’t touch. He remains questionable for next round which starts next Monday, May 29 on Memorial Day.
Anaheim was without Gibson for the last five periods of their season and didn’t have top finisher Rickard Rakell either. They also played the round minus key acquisition Patrick Eaves. Carlyle tried to point to a tough schedule that had his team play seven games over 13 days following a quick turnaround after ousting Edmonton in seven. But that wasn’t the issue. They showed the same resiliency rallying from 2-0 and 3-1 deficits.
It was poor play from Bernier, who wasn’t as steady as he was down the stretch with Gibson out. He allowed four goals on 16 shots while Rinne repelled 38 of 41. It was a weird game that saw Anaheim control large portions with their heavy forecheck. They out-attempted Nashville 63-35. But it meant nothing.
Even without their two best centers, the Predators’ depth shined through to make the difference. Sissons recorded a postseason hat trick including getting the series clincher from Calle Jarnkrok with exactly six minutes left in regulation. Watson scored twice including the second empty netter for the final margin. He also blocked six shots showing tenacity. As a team, the Preds blocked 22 shots. They had to or they wouldn’t have won. That’s how good the Ducks were possession wise.
Sometimes, Corsi doesn’t matter. Not when you have the postseason’s leading Conn Smythe candidate making great save after great save. That’s how special Rinne has been. He finally gets the chance to be in the spotlight. Well deserved for another late draft pick who has been similar to Henrik Lundqvist. Hopefully, fate is on his side.
The Preds have looked like destiny’s darlings since sweeping Chicago. They have not looked like a team that made it as a second wildcard. Not with a top four D featuring unheralded anchor Roman Josi, underrated Ryan Ellis along with overlooked Mattias Ekholm and former Hab P.K. Subban. They’re here due to Johansen having a huge playoffs before being sidelined the rest of the playoffs. They’re here due to the remarkable play of Filip Forsberg, whose empty net goal and key assist on Sissons’ second extended his playoff point streak to seven.
Forsberg’s been tremendous. He really is a star player who the Caps must regret trading for Martin Erat. Imagine if they didn’t. Forsberg competes extremely hard and hustles which led to the Preds’ third goal at the three minute mark of the third to go back up two. He is up to 15 points (8-7-15).
Sissons’ special night started when he took a Pontus Aberg pass and drove a good wrist shot past Bernier low to the blocker side for a two-goal lead at 8:47 of the first. A odd period that also saw Ducks’ youngster Nick Ritchie lose his discipline boarding Viktor Arvidsson from behind hard bloodying him. It resulted in a five-minute major and game misconduct. The appropriate call with Arvidsson going to the locker room for repairs before returning.
But the Preds were dreadful on the power play not even registering a shot. In fact, it was the aggressive Ducks penalty kill which dominated even generating shorthanded chances forcing Rinne to make a pair of timely stops. Had Nashville scored there, they could’ve buried Anaheim.
Instead, the resilient Ducks continued to take it to the Preds who were fortunate to still be up. Anaheim’s hard work finally paid off when following a Nashville icing, Ryan Getzlaf won a offensive draw back to Sami Vatanen, whose low shot rebounded off with Corey Perry in front. Perry helped free the puck to Getzlaf, who found a wide open Ondrej Kase all alone for a tap in at 4:45 cutting the deficit to 2-1.
They were way better. Nashville took two minor penalties giving the Ducks a pair of power plays. But they couldn’t cash in with a strong Preds penalty kill doing the job. Having the front four of Josi, Ellis, Ekholm and Subban serves its purpose. They also got yeoman efforts from guys like Watson, Sissons, Jarnkrok, Arvidsson and checking pivot Vernon Fiddler.
Despite being outshot 25-8, they still led by one entering the final frantic period. When Sissons was able to get to a loose puck after an Aberg whack and beat Bernier five-hole from Forsberg, that made it 3-1 with 17 minutes left. Things looked good. But Chris Wagner was able to get it right back two minutes later with a sweet finish off Rinne and the post from Nic Kerdiles and Antoine Vermette.
The Ducks kept coming. As they have throughout their run, they never quit. A huge Getzlaf face off win led directly to Cam Fowler bombing one from the left point past a screened Rinne to tie the score with still 11:09 remaining. Laviolette challenged for goaltender interference due to Perry contacting Rinne prior to the Fowler goal. But he had enough time to recover. So, they upheld the goal and Nashville lost its timeout.
They really could’ve made the Preds pay for a Josi delay of game that nearly became a two-man advantage with a clear just going off the glass before going out. Maybe that lucky bounce was a sign that the Predators would win. They killed off another ineffective Ducks power play.
This time, it was their aggression that resulted in Sissons’ series clincher with six minutes to go. Sissons forced Fowler into a turnover at the Nashville blueline. He kept puck pursuit and eventually out worked a couple of puck watching Ducks to get the puck to Jarnkrok. The play was a two-on-four with Fowler, Getzlaf, Perry and Ryan Kesler all back. But they were awful allowing Jarnkrok to draw them in and dish across for a unchecked Sissons, who rifled it home top shelf as the power play expired.
Following a stoppage, they announced the hat trick resulting in plenty of hats raining down at Bridgestone Arena. That was due to Sissons’ second goal originally credited to Aberg. But it was clear it was his. It made for a fun and chaotic scene in a very loud arena that would have plenty to celebrate.
Anaheim didn’t give up. But they were unable to get another one past Rinne, who was a brick wall. His defense tightened up down the stretch. Carlyle pulled Bernier early with over two and a half minutes left.
It backfired when Forsberg sent a flip clear from his own blueline that bounced favorably into a vacated Anaheim net with 2:22 left for a 5-3 lead. Less than a minute later, Watson erased any doubt with his second from Ellis into an empty net touching off a celebration at the bench. That included a excited Subban jumping up and down like a kid. Is there a better personality? Good for him.
Even as time wound down, Kevin Bieksa couldn’t resist roughing up a Pred and getting a early shower with a misconduct. That’s who he is. At that point, it was decided. There was no reason for it.
When the buzzer sounded, Nashville mobbed Rinne, who has been electric this postseason. He’ll enter the Stanley Cup Final with a dominant 12-4 record with including a 1.70 goals-against-average, .941 save percentage and two shutouts. He even has three assists demonstrating what a capable puckhandling goalie can do for his defense. Tonight was all about him.
The handshake was good. You saw plenty of mutual respect from the respected leaders of each side. Though it was kinda tough seeing Perry with his face down in tears on the Anaheim bench following Watson’s empty net sealer. That might be his last big run with the Ducks teamed with Getzlaf. They won the franchise’s only Cup in 2007 on a loaded roster that featured Hall of Famer Scott Niedermayer and future Hall of Famer Chris Pronger and Teemu Selanne along with former Conn Smythe winner Jean-Sebastien Giguere.
Kudos to both teams for giving fans a great Western Conference Final. The Predators await the Eastern Conference Final winner between Ottawa and Pittsburgh. The Pens lead the series 3-2 and will look to advance in Game 6 versus the Senators later tonight at 8 PM. They destroyed the Sens 7-0 in Game 5 and have won the last two. We’ll see if the healthier Sens can force a seventh game.