Preds Foil Ducks with D

Nashville versus Anaheim.  From the looks of things, the two teams won’t even be seen on national TV.  Why?  Two invisible teams, one a long way from anywhere on the Left Coast.  Forget that one is a Stanley Cup champion and so deserves more respect than they often get.  The only matchup that might have drawn less marquee value would have been Phoenix-Nashville.

And maybe the national media and those who think hockey is best played where people care about it the most are right—as of just before game time on Wednesday night in Anaheim, there were hundreds of seats available for game two on Friday night.

The Ducks played a good, exciting game. But they couldn’t solve Pekka Rinne as Anaheim dropped a 4-1 decision to the visiting Predators in game one.  Outstanding goaltending performances by the visitor don’t exactly sell tickets, do they?

Well, Wednesday night didn’t start at all like the script said it should.  Nashville came out fast, not defensive.  The Predators put the puck in deep and sprinted past the Ducks’ defense to get it, something they weren’t supposed to be able to do—because their speed is never, ever noted when the team is talked about.

They also scored early on the power play, which, as was noted by looking at their stats, they don’t do all that often.  It was their first opportunity (of two) with Matt Beleskey off for two minutes.  He took the team’s other penalty in the period, too—call it youthful excitement, as each was unnecessary.

Nashville got its goal from a place that it shouldn’t have come from, too—the defense.  What was odd about it was that the puck moved through three players laterally along the Ducks’ blue line, Ryan Suter passing to Mike Fisher, who slid the puck to Shea Weber, who took a one-timer slapshot.  It was a rising puck—good thing, because otherwise it couldn’t have eluded a sliding Ducks’ player, and Anaheim goaltender Dan Ellis barely moved on it.  Screening him in front was Patric Hornqvist.

And Nashville did other things you aren’t supposed to.  Weber hammered Teemu Selanne with a check at the right boards in the early going.

Where the Predators did play according to expectations was in their checking game.  Not that it was “tight” in the classic sense; rather, it was hard. Along with Selanne, other Ducks players took the brunt of big, early hits.  And throughout the evening, Nasvhille kept the Ducks to the outside.

Yet despite that, the Ducks didn’t get off their game.  Head coach Randy Carlyle did roll all four of his lines in period one, and near the end, he double-shifted Bobby Ryan and used a combination not seen before—Ryan, Brandon McMillan and Brad Winchester.  The next shift, Winchester stayed on the ice with Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. In fact, Winchester may not have known how to get off the ice. In the second period, he double-shifted himself and only got to the bench when the clear-in he was attempting hit the linesman and was blown dead.  His average shift in the first period was longer than that of any other Anaheim player except Ryan.

He, like the overly energetic Beleskey, ran around too much late in the period trying to hit someone.

When Ryan got out with the other two typically on his line after Winchester sat down, the three of them, plus Toni Lydman and Luca Sbisa on defense, stood around while the Predators took a puck from behind their net and gave it to Hornqvist, who slammed it at Ellis.  It was a good save, but nowhere near as good as the one made earlier in the frame by Rinne.

Selanne got a pass from Saku Koivu at the left of the Nashville net.  He cut wide with the net all the way open on that side, and jammed a shot.  Somehow, Rinne got there with a foot.

Fans might remember that JS Giguere made a save much like that against Detroit in 2003.  It was a series the Ducks were in no way supposed to win, but they ended up going to the Finals that year.  The save was made with basically nothing but a skate in the crease, miraculous.  Rinne’s wasn’t quite as unbelievable, but 90 percent of the crowd, and most of the players on the ice, had the game 1-1.  Nope.

An omen?

Something else happened in period one that wasn’t supposed to—Perry was hit by a slap shot from the point with about a minute to go.  It hit him in the right elbow, and he favored it on the way to the bench, and then left the bench for the dressing room.  He did return for the second period.

The Ducks continued to play their game in period two, stretching out the play with long passes and controlling the puck in the Nashville zone.  Despite that, the shots at the halfway point were 16-12 for Nashville.  Period one had ended even at 8-8.

The saves Rinne did make, including one where the puck went off the end boards and was swatted by Ryan with Rinne diving back to his left post, were solid. He also got lucky when a puck shot by Beleskey eluded him and then hit him in the right leg and redirected itself wide.

Ellis was just as good for most of the period. He took one off the mask, even, from David Legwand. That’s the second time that’s happened in his relatively short tenure with the club.  A few weeks ago, a shot hit him hard enough to bend the bars in front of his eyes.

Nashville quieted the building with a goal late in the second that may have surprised even them.  Steve Sullivan got the puck flipped to him inside the blue line, and grabbed it at the Ducks’ right faceoff dot.  He went to the net, and Ellis did a kind of rollover snow angel move trying to stop him crossing through the crease.  The puck stopped, and Sullivan poked it past him.  Probably a case of Ellis trying to do a bit too much, but then again, the defense hadn’t caught up with the Nashville player until he was in the crease.

Nasvhille scored again when Fisher took a pass inside the Ducks’ zone, and with Visnovsky sliding towards him, winged a wrist shot from the left dot, right past Ellis’s glove.  Blame Ellis if at all for being a little bit too deep in the net.  His mitt is normally pretty reliable, though.

After the game, Ellis said, “They did a good job using our D as screens at times.  I didn’t really see that fourth one much at all.  Fisher does a good job at pulling it through.  He’s a guy I haven’t played against much in the past so it’s just you know, something you’ve got to learn from.”

Rinne concurred, talking about the trade deadline acquisition of Fisher.  “(He) has a great shot.  It was a wakeup call for them when they pulled Ellis.”  He later added, “That trade looks very good.  Since the trade, I think the whole time he’s been a very valuable player for us, and now he’s scoring a lot of goals, too, so it’s a great thing for us.  He’s that kind of player who plays strong at both ends of the ice, blocks shots and kills penalties, and scores goals, so he’s a really valuable player for us.”

And the trouble is, the Ducks really have no backup plan if their goaltending crumbles.  The team recalled their minor league guy this week to be around if needed.  Ray Emery has been out with an undisclosed injury (the hip), and while it was rumored that Jonas Hiller would be doing backup duties, one team insider said on Wednesday afternoon that Hiller is in no way over his vertigo symptoms.

Just 56 seconds into period three to find out what state Emery was in, because Nashville came down ice, took a weak wrist shot from the high slot, and saw it go right past Ellis and bulge the net. That goal ended Ellis’ evening.

Meanwhile, Rinne held his own on the other end, the shot total in no way a reflection of the danger of the Anaheim chances.  The Ducks did get a goal past halfway through the third on the power play from the ageless Selanne.

If both teams keep as they love to say, “playing their game,” then this series will go to Anaheim.  They’re just better on offense—faster, smoother, more versatile.  Trickier.  But on this night, they didn’t execute.  As their captain Getzlaf said, “It’s hard because Rinne is an athletic guy.  We’ve got to find ways to move him around and get in front of him.  Not only traffic, but good quality shots at net.  A lot of pucks were just thrown at the net, he’s gloving them, and away we go take another faceoff.  It’s not good enough just to throw them there.  We’ve got to put them there with some enthusiasm and get there after them.”

Carlyle said that the Ducks had a hard time getting to the net.  They stayed outside, he said, and didn’t get any bounces.  But that wasn’t the main factor—the loss of faceoffs was the key.  They Predators started with the puck way too often, he commented.

In fact, the numbers weren’t really all the different.  The Ducks won 28 and lost 31.

“It’s not all doom and gloom,” Carlyle said.  “It’s about picking ourselves back up.  We recognize it and we’re responsible for the way we played.  We take a workmanlike approach to it, that we have to play to a higher level than what we were able to achieve tonight and we have to credit the opposition.  They had something to do with it.  They forced us in certain areas and we didn’t execute, and we have to restart and feel good about ourselves.  The next game is the most important.”

He also said that his team would execute better next time.  They have to get closer to the net, put parks harder to the net, and if Rinne keeps playing well—or playing just a bit above what the rest of his squad is, which is what he did Wednesday night—then the Ducks are in trouble.

Nashville was up 1-0 last year and blew its series with Chicago.  It’s something they’re still thinking about, according to Rinne.  The Ducks hope it not something they learned from.

Game two is Friday night, and tickets were being sold after the game Wednesday night.

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