The improbable has become routine for the Ducks, who have yet to find a playoff hurdle they can’t overcome — even when they sometimes put that hurdle in their own path.
The course of the Western Conference finals appeared to change Thursday when the Nashville Predators scored twice in the third period — the last time with 35 seconds left in regulation— to erase the Ducks’ lead and restore the roar of a sold-out crowd that hadn’t seen the home team lose a playoff game at Bridgestone Arena in six tries this spring and 10 in a row dating back to last season.
A victory would have given the Predators a commanding lead in the series, putting them one win away from a berth in the Stanley Cup Final. Their fans could taste it, feel it, rocking the building with their collective hopes and leather lungs. But on the bench and in their locker room before overtime the Ducks remained unruffled, completely confident. They’d been down this road before, and they weren’t intimidated.
“They’ve been getting a lot of attention for how they’ve been playing and they’ve been playing good. And they’re a good team, a strong team,” Ducks left wing Andrew Cogliano said of the Predators. “I think we’re here for a reason as well. I think tonight we pushed back a little bit, and now it’s best out of three.”
It became that when Corey Perry intercepted a clearing attempt by Nashville defenseman P.K. Subban and put the puck toward the net, hoping for a deflection or redirection. He got it, and the Ducks got a series-tying 3-2 triumph, when the puck glanced off Subban and past goaltender Pekka Rinne 10 minutes 25 seconds into sudden-death play. It was the third overtime goal among four goals this spring for Perry, who struggled to score all season but, like his teammates, is rising to the occasion when it means the most.
“He’s a clutch performer and has done it year in and year out,” forward Nate Thompson said.
Defenseman Hampus Lindholm offered a far better explanation for the unlikely comeback win. “That’s Ducks hockey for you right there,” he said cheerfully.
For the past few years, “Ducks hockey” meant something much less complimentary entirely during the playoffs. But they’re not underachievers anymore. “I think the last three or four years we’ve obviously gone through a lot, more downs in the playoffs than ups,” goaltender John Gibson said. “But I think we just learn from that and I think now that we have a sense of calmness and we have the ability to always regroup, whether we’re up or down…. I think we all just have the belief in the locker room and we trust one another that we can come back or have success in any situation.”
And so a postseason journey that has been totally lacking in momentum or logic for the Ducks lurched back to home to Anaheim, for Game 5 on Saturday. “We’re just trying to sell the game and make sure everyone’s entertained,” said defenseman Kevin Bieksa, who was added to the lineup by coach Randy Carlyle to reduce the Predators’ boldness around the net.
Bieksa was successful in that mission, though he took the third of four straight penalties called against the Ducks in that frantic third period. They killed off a five-on-three Nashville advantage that lasted 91 seconds, only to get burned after the Predators pulled Rinne in favor of an extra skater and were rewarded when Filip Forsberg’s second-effort shot got past Gibson at 19:24.
Even then, the Ducks didn’t panic. Especially then, despite knowing one missed assignment or fickle bounce could have given Nashville a commanding lead in the series.
“We’ve had to do it all playoffs. We’ve had situations in the playoffs where we’ve had to deal with that,” said Thompson, who was in front of the net to screen Rinne and was initially credited with the winner before it was confirmed that Perry’s shot had gone off Subban.
“We have a good core of leadership in here,” Thompson said. “Even our younger guys have been through it, too, and we know how to handle ourselves and we did a good job of it and came out and took care of business.”
Their business has become winning, and although Carlyle credited their success to the resilience of his players, he has played a huge role, too. Realizing that players were too tired to summon and sustain the emotions and energy required to win Game 3 on Tuesday, he gave them a day off on Wednesday. They played pool and refreshed their bodies and their minds, and they were physically and mentally strong when they needed to be on Thursday.
“I think all the guys in this room knew we needed to win that game,” Cogliano said. “It’s a good feeling when you know your guys bring their ‘A’ game when they need it.”
That’s Ducks hockey now, rising to the occasion, unlikely though it might be.