NASVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Nashville Predators don’t have their top center, and their captain is day to day with an upper-body injury.
They still have Pekka Rinne in net.
And the Predators have a chance at history on their own ice, a win away from the first Stanley Cup Final berth in the franchise history.
As coach Peter Laviolette put it, the guys know what’s at stake.
Standing in their way? The Anaheim Ducks, the only team to beat them in their home rink in the playoffs over the past two postseasons.
The Predators returned home with a 3-2 Western Conference finals lead after a 3-1 victory over the Ducks in Anaheim on Saturday led by Rinne, who is 7-3 in the Honda Center in the postseason. To avoid a return trip for a Game 7 to test that once again, they can eliminate the Ducks on Monday night in Game 6.
“We obviously know what’s at stake,” forward Colin Wilson said Sunday. “It is one game at a time, but we know our next win puts us in contention for the Stanley Cup. So it’s something we’re focused on, but it is just about that next game, getting the next win.”
The Predators are 10-1 at Bridgestone Arena the past two postseasons, and another record crowd is expected for what will be the biggest sporting event in Nashville history not counting the fans watching just outside the building. They could hear the cheering fans the instant they stepped off the plane, and Laviolette said he knows Monday night will be crazy.
That leaves it up to the Predators to handle business on the ice.
“We got to put our foot on the gas pedal again, and make sure we’re ready to play,” Laviolette said.
Being in position to win the Campbell Bowl on home ice seemed remote Friday when the Predators announced their top scorer, center Ryan Johansen , would miss the rest of the postseason after emergency surgery to repair compartment syndrome on his left thigh. They also were without captain Mike Fisher because of injury.
Laviolette simply tapped Rinne, the three-time Vezina Trophy finalist and Nashville’s strong farm system for help.
Pontus Aberg, who played only 15 games with the Predators all season, scored the winner on his first career playoff goal. Of Nashville’s 11 wins, 10 Predators have winning goals. Frederick Gaudreau, another Milwaukee call-up, helped fill in at center in his postseason debut and won 10 of 14 face-offs against the best team on the dot in these playoffs.
Rinne, who shut out the Blackhawks twice in Chicago to open this postseason, played arguably his best game yet. He made 32 saves and aggressively played the puck to help hold off the Ducks. Rinne is 11-4 in these playoffs, and his 1.62 goals-against average is the fourth-lowest with his .942 save percentage the fourth-highest in NHL history with a minimum of 15 games played.
“He’s been great all playoffs, and the team has so much confidence in him,” defenseman Roman Josi said about Rinne. “It’s awesome playing in front of him, and he’s been unbelievable.”
Nothing can be taken for granted in this series. The Ducks and Predators have been tied or within a goal for 284 minutes, 38 seconds of the 319:49 played. Scoring first has been no guarantee either with the winner coming back four times. That’s how Nashville has won each time in this series for their fifth comeback victory this postseason and the 31st overall of this postseason.
“They’re never out of the game, out of a series, so yeah, got to make sure we’re prepared,” Josi said.
The Ducks have been resilient all postseason, from scoring three goals to tie Edmonton in Game 5 of the second round before winning in overtime to snapping Nashville’s 10-game winning streak on home ice. That had been the longest playoff winning streak since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings before Anaheim won 3-2 in overtime Thursday night.
Defenseman Kevin Bieksa said the Ducks just have to go out and win.
“We’re capable of winning. That’s for sure. We’ve proven that time after time,” Bieksa said. “We have the team, and we’re against the wall right now facing a little bit of adversity.”
The Ducks are dealing with injuries as well. Rickard Rakell missed Saturday’s game with a lower-body injury, and forward Patrick Eaves has missed nine with his injury. Neither traveled to Nashville. Goaltender John Gibson left Saturday’s game after the first period with a lower-body injury and will be re-assessed at Monday morning’s skate.
If Gibson can’t play, Jonathan Bernier will make the first playoff start of his career. He went 21-7-4 in the regular season and has appeared in three games this postseason.
The Ducks rebounded from losing Game 3 by taking a day off in Nashville to shoot pool and throw darts. The schedule doesn’t allow such a break with both the Predators and Ducks back on planes Sunday for the return trip to Tennessee.
“Well, it seems that when the pressure’s been applied, we’ve responded in the proper manner, and I would expect the same,” Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said.
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