Before this season, the Nashville Predators had headed to the playoffs five times in the last six seasons and always returned home as a loser. All of those past first round demons were completely exorcised on Sunday night when the Predators beat the Anaheim Ducks 4-2 to take the series and move on to the second round for the first time in franchise history.
The crowd at Bridgestone Arena was electric, and loud, from before the opening puck drop, until well after the final horn had sounded. It was graduation day for the Predator faithful that are starting to be recognized as less “non-traditional” and more firmly established in the hockey world.
While the fans were elated, it was more business as usual for the players. They were pleased to win the series but have more plans for the future.
“This series is over,” explained forward Patric Hornqvsit, “and now we get off hockey for a couple of days and then we will refocus and and go right at it again and come out flying again and win another series.”
The Predators were led by two goals from Nick Spalling, a tally from Steve Sullivan, and an empty netter from David Legwand. The Ducks goals came from Teemu Selanne and Jason Blake.
“I think my line was working hard tonight,” Spalling said. “They were laying on the forecheck, turned pucks over and found me up front which made it easy on me.”
Pekka Rinne had a Vezina-like performance in net, stopping 25 of 27 Anaheim Shots. Ray Emery took the loss for the Ducks, allowing three goals on 29 Predator shots.
“We really had a lot of push tonight. We had a lot of emotion,” Rinne said about the victory. “We really wanted to try to get it done tonight in our home building. It was a tough series and they have such a good team.”
Barry Trotz had an even keeled perspective on the win.
“I think we have learned to have composure,” he said. “I sort of chuckle every time I pull up the notes that say today is ‘the biggest game in franchise history.’ If we don’t win those games in our last 20, we don’t even make the playoffs. They’ve all been big games, so I sort of chuckle at that.
“At the same time, it was a big game, and if we hadn’t won the game, the next one would have been bigger.”
The game started with good pressure by both teams. The Ducks missed an excellent scoring chance in the opening minutes when they had a two on one and Corey Perry passed to Cam Fowler who whiffed it. The Preds followed that with sustained pressure that brought the crowd to a crescendo.
The Ducks got on the board first at 10:22 when Selanne skated behind the net, then did a wraparound backhand that found a small crack between Rinne and the left post that he was leaning against to put the Ducks ahead 1-0.
At 16:02 Dan Sexton was called for holding Cody Franson but the Preds could only produce a pair of shots on the man advantage.
With the clock ticking down in the first period hard work produced the Predators first goal when Jordin Tootoo took the puck away from Fowler on the boards behind the Ducks net and centered it to Spaling, who was in the slot and he put it past Emery to tied the game 1-1.
The Preds outshot the Ducks, 10-4 and were also 12-7 in the faceoff circle, which helped create the shot advantage.
The second period started off with a bang for the Preds with pressure on the Ducks at both ends of the ice. The Predators scored another workingman’s goal at 3:29 when Blake Geoffrion worked the puck loose and sent it on an outlet pass to J.P. Dumont who gave it to Sullivan who completely faked Emery to his left, leaving the net open for an easy goal.
Francois Beauchemin was called for high-sticking Matt Halischuk at 4:53 and the Predators managed two shots but no goals on the power play.
As the Predators went on the power play the first official catfish was recorded at 4:53 after the face off and it left a bloody trail in the Preds defensive zone near the blue line. It was finally removed by Paul Devorski after the play went around it a couple of times.
For the first time in the game the Preds put the Ducks on the power play at 17:09 in the second when Dumont was called for tripping Luca Sbisa as they chased the puck into the Ducks zone. The inevitable occurred at 18:23 when Blake redirected a Bobby Ryan shot past Rinne to tie the game at 2-2.
For the second period, Anaheim really increased the pressure on the Predators outshooting them, 12-11. Five of the Ducks shots were on their one power play opportunity.
At 1:53 in to the third period a shot from Ryan Suter at the blue line was tipped by Hornqvist and was ruled to be played with a high stick and the goal was waived off much to the chagrin of the 17,113 officials in the crowd.
The Predators got one that counted at 4:53 when Rinne hit Spaling with a pass to the blue line and the puck went to Tootoo and back to Spaling who found the net on a rush to put the Preds ahead, 3-2.
The Preds put the Ducks back on the power play at 7:48 when Mike Fisher was called for tripping Saku Koivu in the Preds left defensive corner. The Preds held the Ducks to two shots including one from Selanne that went off Rinne and caught a post.
The last few minutes of the game were ones of desperation for the Ducks. The Predators held firm and finally got some relief when Koivu was called for interfering with Sergei Kostitsyn with 37.5 seconds remaining and Anaheim having an empty net. With ten seconds remaining, Legwand nailed one of his patented empty netters to set off the celebration on Lower Broad in Music City, the like of which had not been seen before.
Selanne deserves special mention as he appeared to try to carry the whole team on his back as this was posibly his final NHL game.
“Nobody tried harder, nobody cared more, nobody did more in this series than Teemu Selanne,” Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said about the veteran. “It is an emotional time for him right now because of what happened. There is always that looming ‘is this the last one’ and I’m sure he doesn’t want to go out feeling the way he does now.”
The Preds still await their round two opponent.