Ducks Let Down Late

The Ducks were up one Ryan, down a Ruutu, and playing a loosey goosey game early in their contest with Nashville Friday night.  Things went back and forth as the game continued, as has been the case all series.  In the end, the Ducks blew a lead with mistakes late, and took a loss.  For the Preds, it was their first game five win and first OT win, ever.  Is this a step forward for the franchise?  Their coach hopes so.

The first period ended 1-0 Nashville, but not for lack of excitement on the part of the Ducks’ offense.  Despite recording just six shots, they pressed a good deal of the period, keeping Nashville hemmed in their zone.

Twice they crashed the net and put it off its moorings, sliding the goalie out of position with it.  The first was the more spectacular of the two—Teemu Selanne in the first couple of minutes came down, tripped over a sprawling Nashville player, and slid to the net on his knees.

Being the miraculous player that he is, he got off a wrist shot on his way in.  Then he took out the goalie and the cage.

As the period went on, the full house saw Ducks hockey—long stretch passes and defensive risk-taking, with a little bit of ht-and-be-hit thrown in.  Funny, then, that Nashville was the team which came out of it on top. Actually not so funny since twice in period one, the Ducks saw their defense break down, and it cost them good chances by the Predators.  The first goal came from a couple of guys who don’t typically generate much offense, but who are, like any NHL player is, capable when given the chance.

The Ducks were pinching in the Nashville end, with Andreas Lilja in from the blueline.  Jordin Tootoo took the puck at the line, shoved it ahead of him, and carried it down the ice with Kevin Klein two-on-one.  Tootoo threw it over a sprawling Ducks defender and Klein put it in the net.

Nashville was working without the services of Martin Erat, who has had a tough go of it in the series.  A couple of games ago, he got an accidental butt end and lost four teeth.  No big deal, right?  Hockey players live with that.  Wednesday, he took the hit that got Ruutu suspended, an open-ice check that looked clean and not to the head, but was late.  Ruutu is out a game.  Erat, for who knows how long.  He did not finish that contest, and he didn’t board the plane from Tennessee to be with the team for this game.

Erat is obviously someone a coach would take off the ice if he could, though there’s no evidence to suggest that that was what was intended in this case.  His production already in this series in three games and a little bit—three points on a goal and two assists.

He has never been stirling in the playoffs, having recorded just 16 points (seven goals) in 30 games.  But this season, in 64 games, he notched 50 points, and his career numbers are about at that same average, roughly .66 points per game.

Maybe more than that, he’s a lot of the soul of his team having moved to the top of the list in many career categories.  He was drafted by the Preds in 1999 and has never played anywhere else.  With him out, the Predators had to shuffle their lineup a bit, adding JP Dumont back into the mix, though to see limited duty (less than seven minutes on the night).

The Ducks also had to factor some changes into their plans, with Ruutu suspended.  Hence, the following line combinations: with Ryan back, the top line of him, Perry, and Getzlaf was intact.  The second line also.  The third was Marchant, Nick Bonino, and Brandon McMillan.  The fourth was just two guys, Parros and Matt Beleskey, with the option of using the seventh defenseman, Sheldon Brookbank, on the wing.

Sitting in the press box (or somewhere, but not on the bench) were Brad Winchester, who had played three prior games in the series, and Kyle Palmieri and Andy Sutton, who had each suited up for one.

But get this.  Early in period two, the fourth line which took a shift was Parros, Beleskey, and Getzlaf.  No kidding, and it wasn’t just a matter of things having revolved that way due to shorthanded situations.  That was what Carlyle put out there.

It didn’t work.  Parros was trying to go around a guy at the Nashville blueline and clipped him with his stick on the way by.  He sat for two while Nashville worked its power play.  That had been five for 21 in the series.  On this night, it wasn’t so much effective in scoring as good at testing Ray Emery, who held the Ducks in as the second went on.

Even without the extra man, Nashville was effective at getting pucks to the Anaheim netminder.  When Cam Fowler went off for hooking at about six minutes gone in period two, the shots were Ducks eight, Nashville 15.

The saves Emery made were not like those of a couple of nights ago—routine but necessary.  And while one might not call them spectacular exactly, they were close to it.  The shots came through crowds, or with traffic, and Emery had to be nimble to get a leg on them.  He held Nashville off while waiting for his boys to get one back to tie it.

They did, on the power play.  The goal was not the kind of pretty, flying, one-timing beauty that they so often put in the net.  Instead, it was at the end of the man advantage, on yet another pointless penalty by Shane O’Brien, who has surely hurt his team with his 14 minutes of PIMs thus far in this series.

The puck came from the point, a slapshot by Luca Sbisa, tipped by Saku Koivu in front of the net.  It went into Rinne’s gut and dropped, where Jason Blake alone could see it.  He shoved his stick under the goalie’s legs and impelled it into the net.  The period ended with the Ducks having gotten the shots more even, trailing the Preds by one, 17-18.

But oddly enough, despite the score being tied, Nashville seemed to go into slump mode as the second period wound down.  They were standing around for the last few minutes of the middle period, and at one point, watched while Getzlaf put a puck out front for Perry, standing right on the margin of the crease, who slammed a shot into Rinne.

The third period saw the full house—really, honestly, every-ticket-sold and every seat occupied—roaring.  Sure, it was Friday night, and it would have been OK for the thing to go into OT.  Not many had to worry about going to work in the morning.  But this series has been so up and down that risking OT would have been foolish, and the crowd seemed to know that.

So did Bobby Ryan. He grabbed a puck at center, deked past Shea Weber, then deked out David Legwand.  The latter lost his stick but kept chasing the elusive American, who, just to make the point that he’s not human, deked past him again, putting the puck behind Legwand and getting it back.  He then took it to the net, went to the backhand, and put it past Rinne’s blocker.

The crowd yelled “Bob-by, Bob-by,” and the graphic below Ryan’s image on the big screen said “Welcome back.”

It seemed like the classic, clichéd case for a  timeout, and that’s what most of us would have done in the moment, but most of us aren’t coaching in the NHL for a reason. The best just know when to make the calls they do, and Trotz sat on his TO.  After all, there was lots of time left, and it was only 2-1.

The Ducks then stopped playing.  Not totally—not the way their cross-town rivals the Kings have done in their past two games, but they let Nashville control the puck, and allowed their offense to fly.  Nashville, as I detailed in my story on game one here in Anaheim, is a faster team than most people probably realize, and the Ducks just sat back as the third period unwound and let them work the puck back and forth in the zone.

The Predators tied the game at two when Joel Ward came over the blueline, took a slapshot wide, and then followed the play from left to right through the high slot.  The puck took the typical hard bounce out that it will in this arena and went right back to Ward, who blasted it in.  He had another chance late in the third, on which Emery made a good leg save.

The Ducks came right back, again in spectacular fashion, as the 40 year-old phenom called Selanne took a hard knock behind the net, fell down, passed the puck off the goalie backhand and watched while it bounced into the slot and right to Jason Blake, who put it in the exact spot Ryan had, past the blocker hand of Rinne.

3-2, but it wasn’t enough.  The Ducks had the thing in the bag when a slow roller went down the ice toward Nashville’s empty net.  It went wide, which meant, of course, an icing.  The Preds scored right off the ensuing faceoff, and classic goal, if not as beautiful as the latter two the Ducks had scored.

Mike Fisher won the faceoff back to the right point, where Cody Franson was waiting for it.  He made a quick over to Shea Weber, who slapped it high and to the long side, over Emery’s glove with a guy in front of the net.

Coach Carlyle said after that what he would have wanted on the faceoff was to have his center tie up the other, rather than trying for a clean win.  “You don’t try to do anything pretty.  You just try to push the puck out over the blueline.  But they won it pretty clean, and we missed an assignment, and the bottom line is that we let their top-scoring defenseman shoot the puck unchecked.”

Carlyle also said about the goal, “We felt that we could recover from that for sure,” as the team waited for OT.  “You flush that out of your system and get back to your template, playing your game.  But it [the extra period] was so short, it’s hard to determine whether we  . . .” and that’s where he stopped and went back to talking about the goal that put the Ducks down in the series, 3-2.

There were just 35 seconds left in regulation, and the smiles spread around the press box.  Not because anyone cares who wins, but because a couple of guys had said earlier in the night that three overtimes were a possibility.

But then again, Ducks’ overtimes usually don’t last very long.  They open the game up so much that either they score, or their opponents exploit a mistake.  That’s exactly what happened.

Less than two minutes had gone by when, according to Carlyle, “We made a mistake.  We turned the puck over on the wall, and they made a read; they found the open guy.  There was no need for us to run out of position.  There was no need for us to turn the puck over in the neutral zone.”

Jordin Tootoo had zoomed in and taken a shot, then followed his rebound to the back of the net.  There he survived a hit and put it in the slot for Jerred Smithson, who put it past Emery at 1.57.  Tootoo said after, “We’ll take this one, and run with it, but we have to tighten up our defensive game.  You have to live for the moment in playoff games, but we’ll regroup ourselves.”

About his own play, he said, “The more you play, the more confident you get.  That’s what comes with maturity.  I know I can make plays out there, but at the same time, I stick to my foundation, and that’s to be a physical presence, creating space both for myself and my linemates.  Our key tonight was to get pucks to the net and get to those second and third chances.  Emery gives up a lot of rebounds.  It comes down to willpower, battling in front of the net to get to those.”

Speaking about his play, his coach said, “It was a really big night for Jordin.  He was a big part of the victory.  That line played really well tonight.”

He added about Smithson, “The LA Kings gave up on him, and we picked him up.  He’s become a Nashville Predator type of player.  He comes to work every day.”

Coach Trotz of Nashville was his usual understated self, but he had to be happy.  The Ducks had basically gift-wrapped a win for his team, who had never won a game five in a playoff series before, and never an overtime game, as was mentioned up top.

Was it Nashville’s doing, or Anaheim’s undoing?  Those two icings the Ducks committed led to the tying goal, obviously.  The faceoff loss that led to the tying goal was a mistake.  The lack of coverage.  Perhaps that’s why Carlyle said after that he thought his team hadn’t played their best game.

Trotz concurred, saying that it’s a chess match.  He will adjust for Sunday, and he’s sure Carlyle will, and that the Ducks will be better.  “We’ll have to be absolutely at our best in Nashville,” he commented.  “We made some adjustments for this game.  They made a couple during the game, and they may come up with a little bit different game plan, so we have to try to anticipate that.  It’s not just matchups and players, but different things off of different little situations.”

They have to hope so, or else it’s curtains.  Nashville can clinch their first playoff series win, ever, a step for the franchise that Trotz says they are ready for.  “Our goal is to take the next steps all the time.  Every team is different, and it will be a different thing for us, too, but we just have to keep everything in perspective.  There’s some good hockey to be played.”

Nashville has hosted elimination games at home before, but never when they had the chance to put another squad away.  Sunday brings that opportunity.

Brian Kennedy wrote Growing Up Hockey and Living the Hockey Dream.  Both are available at bookstores or through the usual online sources.

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