(The Sports Xchange) - Call it a new frontier for the Nashville Predators, one the Anaheim Ducks know all too well.
Snapping a scoreless tie with second-period goals by Mattias Ekholm and James Neal, Nashville nursed its lead to the final horn in a 3-1 win over Anaheim on Monday at Bridgestone Arena.
By evening the first-round Western Conference series at three games apiece, the Predators forced the first Game 7 in franchise history on Wednesday in Anaheim.
“Every kid playing hockey plays in a Game 7,” Neal said. “They’re exciting. It’s where heroes are made. You step up in those big moments. There will be some nerves, but I believe in this team. Just enjoy it.”
The Predators stayed alive thanks to 26 saves from goalie Pekka Rinne in his best effort of the playoffs.
While Nashville has never been in this spot, the Ducks ended their season with Game 7 defeats the last three seasons after holding 3-2 series leads, as they did in this series.
In last year’s Western Conference finals, Anaheim lost 5-3 to the Chicago Blackhawks, who went on to win the Stanley Cup.
Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau said previous failures should not have any effect on his team’s performance in the do-or-die game.
“It’s a new team, it’s a new time,” he said. “Every day is different, every game is different. We’re looking forward to the game.”
After erasing a 2-0 series deficit with three impressive wins that saw them outscore the Predators 12-3, the Ducks did not play that badly in Game 6.
They owned a 27-26 edge in shots on goal, tried 13 more shots overall than Nashville (counting those that were blocked or missed the net) and carried play for a majority of the final 30 minutes.
However, the Predators buried two good chances in the second period, and Rinne, who entered the game with a pedestrian save percentage of .889 in the series, looked more like the five-time All-Star he has been during his career.
Rinne delivered his best save with 6:40 remaining in the game. Corey Perry was all alone in the slot with plenty of time to get off a wrister, but Rinne’s right pad kicked out the puck.
“Corey’s shooting the puck, generally something’s going in,” Boudreau said. “I thought we kept pushing and had some good chances, but they defended well.”
Anaheim goalie Frederik Andersen, who allowed just three goals on 88 shots as the Ducks gained the series lead, played well enough to win, making 23 saves on Monday.
However, he could not do much about Nashville’s pair of markers in the middle period.
Ekholm skated around the net from left to right on the first one, finally facing the net from the faceoff circle and wristing a 27-footer through traffic. His second goal of the series came at 8:10 as the sellout crowd of 17,113 roared.
“You obviously want to start with the first goal and get your crowd into it,” Ekholm said. “When that first puck went in, it felt like we took a weight off our shoulders.”
Neal made it 2-0 at 17:45. Ryan Johansen carried the puck down the right side on an odd-man rush, feeding Neal at the left goalpost for his second goal of the series and his first since the first minute of Game 1.
Anaheim drew within 2-1 on a rebound marker by Ryan Kesler at 19:46 of the second period. It came 29 seconds after a questionable holding call on Ekholm drew the ire of the crowd, inspiring fans to toss some giveaway towels on the ice.
However, the Predators steadied themselves in the third period, Rinne making nine saves to protect the lead. Shea Weber tacked on insurance with an empty-net goal at 19:50.
While Nashville has no Game 7 history as a franchise, coach Peter Laviolette does, having won a Game 7 in the 2006 Stanley Cup finals with the Carolina Hurricanes. Now he gets to steer another team into an adventure few of them know about.
“Game 7s are awesome,” Laviolette said. “I think our players will be ready. I don’t think there’s anything better in the Stanley Cup than a Game 7 when everything means something.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford