This was the night the Nashville Predators grew up, the moment they showed enough perseverance and maturity to forever shed their reputation as being a nice little team that always lacked some ingredient necessary for success in the rugged environment of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Stymied time after time by Ducks goaltender John Gibson on Tuesday, denied apparent goals twice when they too enthusiastically crashed into him, the Predators wrested a gutsy 2-1 victory from the Ducks and took a 2-1 lead in the Western Conference finals. Bridgestone Arena could barely contain the roars of the dancing, gold-shirted fans when Roman Josi buried a rebound with 2 minutes 43 second left in the third period while Ducks forward Chris Wagner was in the penalty box, serving a needless offensive-zone high-sticking penalty.
Nashville is still an untraditional hockey market, but the Predators are establishing a tradition of winning here. They’re 6-0 at home in these playoffs and have won 10 straight home playoff games dating to last season. Their fans have become a palpable presence in supporting their every push and generating enough energy to inspire them to keep their legs churning and hearts beating fast.
“They didn’t surprise us. We knew what was going to happen,” Ducks right wing Corey Perry said. “We knew the building was going to be loud and they were going to come hard. I thought we were ready for it.”
They weren’t as prepared as they believed, and Gibson kept his teammates in the game far longer than their effort probably merited.
“Gibson played great in net,” said Filip Forsberg, who tied the score at 1-1 at 3:54 of the third period, “but at the same time we just kept pounding them, and I think that was the key.”
The Predators came in waves, shots coming in torrents, though Ducks coach Randy Carlyle was skeptical of the 40-20 count. “I don’t know who was keeping it,” Carlyle said, “but he better get a pair of glasses.” Shots and hits can be inflated or undercounted by statisticians, but the Predators clearly carried the play in the second period, when they held the Ducks to four shots — but one of those was Perry’s sharp-angled goal against Pekka Rinne, at 15:35, during a power play they gained when Nash-ville’s Cody McLeod got an instigator penalty for fighting Ducks forward Jared Boll.
“The scores at this time of the year generally are fairly low. And you wonder if 1-0 is going to do it for the night.”
But his team continued to press into the third and was rewarded when Forsberg converted the rebound of a shot by Ryan Ellis. Nor did the Predators falter when they had apparent goals waved off — decisions that were upheld after league reviews — at 6:24 and 6:35 of the third period. If the first one was debatable, the second one was obvious to all but the raucous fans who thought Mattias Ekholm should have been allowed to bowl over Gibson.
Despite those disappointments, the Predators remained focused and continued to swarm over the fading Ducks before they finally capitalized on that late power play.
Gibson was helpless on the game winner, which was set up when a shot by Ekholm hit teammate Viktor Arvidsson and caromed to Josi in the right circle.
“He was incredible. He played awesome,” Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf said of Gibson. “They were bumping into him all night long. I saw him on his back five, six times and he stood in and made the saves he’s supposed to, and some that he shouldn’t. He allowed us to stay in the game.”
The Ducks had been 5-0-0 in games they led after the second period, but the Predators didn’t let them extend that streak. Getzlaf said it was partly the Ducks’ own fault.
“I didn’t think we executed with the puck properly tonight, which caused us a lot [more] headaches than needed,” he said. “They were good around our net. They played hard at our net, bumping our goalie all night long, and we didn’t do a good enough job getting inside.”
Being behind isn’t a new situation for the Ducks, who lost the first two games of their second-round series against Edmonton but came back to win in seven games. The Predators, competing in their first conference finals, have never been in this situation before, but they and their fans are making a lot of noise this spring.
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen