Almost as impressively as the Nashville Predators hovered around the net Friday, the Ducks circled around their beaten veteran goaltender Jonas Hiller after a 5-2 trouncing at Honda Center.
Hiller, returning from a three-game hiatus that Coach Bruce Boudreau said he hoped would enhance the goalie's sharpness for the approaching Stanley Cup playoffs, gave up four first-period goals on nine shots.
After a 14-game win streak from Dec. 6 to Jan. 12, Hiller is 6-8-3 since.
He was replaced with 2 minutes, 55 seconds left in the period by the emerging rookie Frederik Andersen, who's gaining serious traction for playoff use with a 19-5 showing this season that included three consecutive wins in Hiller's absence.
Andersen entered to cheers, irking some Ducks, but he was suffering from a headache during the second intermission, and Hiller returned to stop all eight shots he faced in the third period.
Hiller did not talk to reporters after the game.
His Ducks (50-19-8) clinging to a one-point Pacific Division lead over San Jose, with the Sharks hosting Nashville on Saturday, Anaheim Coach Bruce Boudreau said it's “too early” to assess postseason goalie use.
“We've got five more [regular season] games,” Boudreau said. “Let's see how it suits out, who the opposition is going to be, what the goalies' records are against them. How they're playing going into the playoffs is going to be a factor...”
Yet Ducks veterans Ryan Getzlaf and Francois Beauchemin defended Hiller, with defenseman Beauchemin calling the Ducks' third straight multi-goal deficit a “team-wide defensive” issue, not a goalie problem.
“We're not starting games on time,” Getzlaf said. “I wish I could pinpoint it, it's a matter of each individual looking at themselves. We should be ready at the drop of the puck.
“Jonas has played unbelievably all season. Tonight, we didn't help him. We didn't stick up for him, answer the bell. The guy's battled for us all season, he's going to have a bad night once and again.”
Hiller was greeted at 5:36 in when Nashville center Colin Wilson charged, shot, pressed forward and saw the puck strike off Hiller's left leg pad to the goal.
Ducks defenseman Luca Sbisa could've done a better job clearing a puck that Wilson backhanded past Hiller for a 2-0 lead, but there was no excuse for the backhand that Mike Fisher scored on 1:09 later for a 3-0 lead.
The Ducks overcame 4-0 and 2-0 deficits in their last two games, and forward Kyle Palmieri scored his 13th goal to make it 3-1 on a crisp backhanded pass by Patrick Maroon.
But Hiller simply didn't have it and was beat again in a near repeat of Fisher's goal when Nashville's Patrik Hornqvist collected a puck off the boards behind the net and delivered a backhanded goal again to Hiller's left. The Predators (34-32-11) escaped the Central Division cellar with the win.
“I always expect more, but I didn't expect the team to make the mistakes [it did], either,” Boudreau said. “I saw [the Predators] score on their first shot and then I saw everything deflate, like, ‘Oh, no, we're fighting from behind again …' And that's where it ended up.”
Beauchemin agreed, lamenting the “clear shots” Nashville took at Hiller. “We have a game plan, we have to execute it,” he said. “We follow the plan, we win games.”