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Column: Ducks can’t close another home opener

Predators forward James Neal is embraced by teammate PK Subban, right, after scoring the game-winning goal against the Ducks in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The Ducks banished their Game 7 playoff demons when they defeated the Edmonton Oilers to win their second-round playoff series, but they haven’t killed all their postseason demons just yet.

In each of their previous two playoff series against the Nashville Predators, in 2011 and last year, the Ducks lost the opener at home. Make that three straight home-opening losses to Nashville now, following their 3-2 overtime loss Friday in the first game of the Western Conference finals.

Despite mounting yet another comeback in a postseason run full of rallies, the Ducks couldn’t finish this one off. James Neal scored on a one-timer from the right circle nine minutes and 24 seconds into sudden-death play, giving the Predators a victory in a series opener for the third time this spring. The team that surprisingly swept the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round and went toe-to-toe with the physical St. Louis Blues to win a second-round series in six games outshot the Ducks 46-29 and conceded nothing in any area of the game.

The Ducks knew they’d have their work cut out for them. The Predators’ performance on Friday reinforced that notion.

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“They were physical and we know they’re a physical team. They’re hard to play against. But we did a good job of matching that and being physical on our own and continuing to push,” said Predators forward Austin Watson, who gave Nashville a 2-1 lead 2:42 into the second period on a swift and precise passing play.

Watson became the 15th member of the Predators to score a goal in this season’s playoffs, a franchise record and a testament to the offensive balance achieved by a team that has always been known more for its goaltending and defensive excellence than its scoring. This is the Predators’ first trip to the conference finals and they aren’t merely happy to be here.

“We’re just confident in our group,” Watson said of the spread-out scoring. “We’ve got 20 guys in here that we can play and can contribute. During the playoffs it’s huge to get it from everybody.”

The Ducks have reacted well while facing adversity this spring, rallying within games and within their series against Edmonton after the Oilers had won the first two games at Honda Center. But the Predators, who are a league-best 9-2 in postseason play, are better than the Calgary Flames, who were swept by the Ducks in the first round, and a more mature and defensively disciplined team than the Oilers.

“Of course, it’s a little different team,” Ducks defenseman Sami Vatanen said. “They come hard and they pressure you very hard. We have to make fast plays and just keep doing what we’re doing.”

But if the Predators continue to do what they’ve been doing, the Ducks are in for a tough battle. The Predators fired the first shot Friday by holding off the Ducks’ late push and prevailing in overtime, putting 46 shots on Ducks goaltender John Gibson.

It’s a good start, but this figures to be a long series. “You get some momentum right away. It’s a nice feeling for everyone in here. And [Saturday] is going to be a lot easier,” Nashville defenseman Mattias Ekholm said of the benefits of winning the opener.

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“You just get a smile on your face. It’s a nice feeling, but we’ve done nothing yet and we know we’ve got to stay on it for Game 2. But we know now that we have that home-ice advantage again. We’re really comfortable both on the road and at home so it’s a good feeling to get the first one.”

For the Ducks, there’s reason for optimism in both their recent playoff comebacks and in the revival of their penalty killing on Friday. Their penalty-killing unit had struggled in the first two rounds and had neutralized only 69% of the team’s disadvantages, but on Friday they killed off five disadvantages, including a five-on-three manpower edge Nashville had gained in the third period after the Ducks took two straight delay of game penalties.

Ryan Getzlaf was sent to the penalty box at 9:57 for that offense and Nate Thompson followed him there at 10:30, creating a pivotal moment for both teams. But Gibson and his teammates refused to give in, with defenseman Cam Fowler blocking a hard shot by Roman Josi and Ryan Kesler bravely putting himself in the path of a blast by P.K. Subban. Using the athleticism that is the foundation of his game, Gibson stopped two shots by James Neal and another by Josi, triggering a roaring, towel-waving response from the Honda Center crowd.

It’s something to build on for the Ducks, who will host Game 2 on Sunday. “We have a confident group here,” Vatanen said. “We know we can come back whenever. It’s a calm group, so that helps.”

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helene.elliott@latimes.com

Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen

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