A Western Conference finals defined by dramatic swings took a profound, unexpected turn Friday.
Just a few hours after the Ducks finished talking about the growth of their young players, the Nashville Predators announced devastating news about one of theirs.
Ryan Johansen, Nashville’s leading scorer, suffered a season-ending left-thigh injury in Game 4 that required emergency surgery. He is out two to three months.
Johansen got hit by Ducks defenseman Josh Manson in the second period but continued playing until about a minute before Corey Perry’s overtime goal gave the Ducks a 3-2 win that tied the best-of-seven series 2-2, with Game 5 on Saturday at Honda Center.
How both teams proceed from that turning point will be the next chapter in a compelling series that has seen the Ducks ride the waves of their younger players.
With Johansen out of the picture, Nick Ritchie and John Gibson stepped back into it. Ritchie scored his second goal of the series Thursday and has four goals in 13 games, often using his impressively wicked wrist shot.
Ducks coach Randy Carlyle didn’t coach Ritchie until this season but said this is the evolution they envisioned for the 21-year-old, who offered more brawn than skill until this season.
“He scored an awful lot of goals in junior hockey on the off side, scoring where he scored the goal [Thursday],” Carlyle said. “And he’s had to make some changes in his approach to being professional. And we think that the biggest step he made was last summer, allowing him to transform his body into a lot more suited to the professional hockey player where, as a young kid, he had to figure this stuff out. And it’s going to have to continue. But we’re very, very fortunate to have him.”
Carlyle met with Ritchie last June to map out a plan for his growth, almost literally, and Ritchie got leaner in preparation for his first full NHL season.
“It was just something I focused on to make myself better as a player,” Ritchie said. “I didn’t do anything crazy. I just focused on it and had a good summer training and ate healthy. And I think it’s helped out a lot.”
Ritchie already honed his shot, which television broadcasters likened to that of former Toronto Maple Leafs forward Wendel Clark. Gibson can attest to it through practice against his teammate.
“Sometimes it hurts,” Gibson said. “Yeah, he’s got a good shot. Not only is it accurate, but it’s pretty heavy. You guys might not be able to tell, but from my standpoint, experiencing it, it’s pretty heavy.”
Gibson, 23, has a steadier hand on the rudder after an inconsistent first two rounds. He stopped 70 of 74 shots in Games 3 and 4, and one of the goals was on a Nashville power play.
Gibson’s success always will be tied to the franchise’s decision last summer to keep him instead of Frederik Andersen.
“And the decision looks like a good one right now, doesn’t it?” Carlyle said.
Gibson often has shrugged off being chosen as the franchise goalie but he described what it’s like.
“It’s obviously exciting,” Gibson said. “But there’s pressure that comes with it. You want to prove to the guys and the management and the coaches that their decision, they made the right one. And just be confident in there.
“I still approach it the same way. I still go out and have fun, but obviously there’s a little more pressure.”
Handling pressure has been trial-and-error for a lot of the young Ducks. For every smart play, there are examples of ill-advised moves, such as slashing and tripping penalties by Manson and Ondrej Kase, respectively, late in Game 4. Veterans Perry and Kevin Bieksa also took penalties during the Ducks’ collapse.
Still, the Ducks evened the series and find themselves in a 2-2 tie for the third time in their past four playoff series.
“Last night was obviously massive for us to pull that one out,” Cam Fowler said. “And we obviously enjoy playing in front of our home fans and feel that we can use home ice to our advantage. But the experiences that we’ve gone through has helped us … when we’ve faced adversity so far this playoff. So helpfully that can help us out again.”
In addition to Johansen, Nashville could be without another center, Mike Fisher. He was struck in the head by Manson when Manson jumped to a loose puck in the third period Thursday. Predators coach Peter Laviolette said Fisher was under evaluation and there was no update Friday.
Rickard Rakell came out fine from Game 4, Carlyle said. Rakell took a hit from P.K. Subban and did not finish the game. … Perry tied the NHL record for most overtime goals in a playoff (three), also set by Mel Hill with the Boston Bruins in 1939 and Maurice Richard of the Montreal Canadiens in 1951.