Column: Ducks can’t close another home opener
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.
“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.
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)
Ducks goalie John Gibson and forward Corey Perry collide as the puck sails into the net for a 3-2 overtime win for the Predators in Game 1 at Honda Center.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Ducks center Nate Thompson looks away as Predators players, Mattias Ekholm, left, Colton Sissons and Calle Jarnkrok celebrate a 3-2 overtime win in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Ducks center Ryan Kesler tries to defelct the puck past Predators goalie Pekke Rinne during the second period of Game 1 at Honda Center on May 10.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Ducks center Nate Thompson sends the puck into the stands for a third-period penalty resulting in a 5-on-3 advantage for the Predators during Game 1 at Honda Center.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Ducks center Antoine Vermette tries to deflect a shot past Predators goalie Pekka Rinne during the third period of Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Ducks defenseman Brandon Montour fires a shot during the third period of Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
The Ducks and fans celebrate Hampus Lindholm’s game-tying goal in the third period of Game 1 of the Western Conference finals at Honda Center.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Ducks goalie John Gibson makes a save on a shot by Predators forward James Neal during third period action in game one of the NHL Western Conference Final.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Ducks forward Andrew Cogliano lays across Predators goalie Pekka Rinne as he’s pushed by forward Viktor Arvidsson during the second period of Game 1 at Honda Center.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Ducks goalie John Gibson stops a point-blank shot from Predators forward Cody McLeod during the second period of Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Predators players Cody Mcleod and Ryan Johnson celebrate a second period goal by Austin Watson in game one of the NHL Western Conference Final.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Ducks center Chris Wagner looks to deflect the puck past Predators goalie Pekka Rinne as defenseman Ryan Ellis runs interference during the first period of Game 1.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Ducks goaltender John Gibson deflects a shot as teammate Hampus Lindholm struggles to guard Predators winger Viktor Arvidsson during the first period of Game 1 at Honda Center.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Predators winger Filip Forsberg celebrates after scoring in the first period of Game 1 against the Ducks.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Ducks winger Jakob Silfverberg is upended by Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis during the first period of Game 1 of the Western Conference final.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
“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.
“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.”
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen
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