Sports Hockey

Late goal gives Predators 2-1 series lead over Ducks

By Michael Traikos, Postmedia Network

Nashville Predators left wing Filip Forsberg (9), of Sweden, is greeted by teammates after scoring a goal during the third period in Game 3 of the Western Conference final against the Anaheim Ducks in the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs Tuesday, May 16, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn. The Predators won 2-1. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Nashville Predators left wing Filip Forsberg (9), of Sweden, is greeted by teammates after scoring a goal during the third period in Game 3 of the Western Conference final against the Anaheim Ducks in the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs Tuesday, May 16, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn. The Predators won 2-1. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

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NASHVILLE — Not every villain has a playoff beard and wears an Anaheim Ducks jersey.

Some are dressed in stripes.

At least, that was how fans of the Nashville Predators had been looking at it after on-ice officials nearly “cost” their team a win in Game 3 of the Western Conference final.

Anaheim’s Ryan Kesler was booed almost every time he touched the puck on Tuesday night, but most of the venom during the third period was saved for referees Brad Meier and Wes McCauley, who had the audacity to disallow two Nashville goals.

They weren’t necessarily the wrong calls. But try explaining that to a sold-out crowd, who chanted, “Refs, you suck!” and littered the ice with bright yellow rally towels after two goals were disallowed less than 10 seconds apart. Worse yet, on the second non-goal, Nashville received a goalie interference penalty.

For the Predators, it would have been an easy opportunity to throw up their hands and pack it in. Instead, they got angry. Not only did the Predators kill off the penalty, they came back and eventually scored on a power play of their own to defeat the Ducks 2-1 on Tuesday night.

With the win, the Predators took a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference final. Game 4 takes place in Nashville on Thursday. And with how close and how physical both teams have been playing, you can bet the officials will once again have their hands full.

“Obviously, we wanted the goals to be counted,” said Filip Forsberg. “But we just kept playing.”

It helped that the crowd never stopped making noise. This was Nashville’s first time hosting a game in the conference final. And the wait was definitely worth it. For the final 10 minutes, fans stood and rallied behind their team to keep pushing, keep pressing and keep battling. Eventually, it worked.

After Anaheim’s Chris Wagner caught Nashville’s Ryan Ellis with a high stick in the final minutes of the third period, Predators defenceman Roman Josi scored the game-winner on the ensuing power play.

“You’ve got to be in here to feel the energy,” said Josi, who credited the crowd as much as Viktor Arvidsson, who set up the goal, for the assist. “They just keep cheering and cheering. I haven’t been in a building with that much energy in my life.”

Heading into the game, the most of the talk was about the ongoing battle between Ryan Johansen and Kesler, whose on-ice feud had spilled into a war of words off the ice.

Johansen, who had been shadowed for the first two games of the series, should have seen less of Kesler in Game 3. But even with the Predators controlling the last line change, head coach Peter Laviolette did not shelter the team’s top scorer from the Ducks’ top checkers.

Of course, it wasn’t just Johansen that Nashville had to worry about.

As the Predators realized, the Ducks had more than one agitator capable of knocking opponents off their game.

With the score tied 0-0 in the second period, Jared Boll caught Harry Zolnierczyk with an open-ice hit that crumpled the Predators forward to the ice. Cody McLeod immediately jumped in to his teammate’s defence, picking a fight with Boll.

It was a valiant — if not foolish — decision, as McLeod received an penalty for instigating and was kicked out of the game.

On the ensuing power play, Corey Perry delivered the knockout blow that McLeod couldn’t. Taking the puck wide, Perry banked a shot off Pekka Rinne to give the Ducks a 1-0 lead.

It had been that kind of series for Rinne, who had uncharacteristically struggled in Game 2, allowing four or more goals for the first time in the playoffs. He bounced back with a far better effort in Game 3, but there were still some close calls, like when the Ducks cleared the puck the length of the ice and it nearly skipped over Rinne’s pads at the last moment.

Another time, Anaheim’s Brandon Montour fanned on a shot that snuck underneath Rinne’s pads. Luckily for Nashville, defenceman Mattias Ekholm knocked the net off before the puck could cross the line.

Still, it was Anaheim goalie John Gibson who was causing Nashville the most worry. The Predators outshot the Ducks 28-to-13 after 40 minutes — the Ducks only had four shots in the second period —but it was not until the third period when Forsberg finally timed the game.

“Gibson played great,” said Forsberg, who scored his sixth of the playoffs. “We just kept pounding them. That was the key.”

Getting more to count proved to be a more difficult challenge. But the Predators, who remained a perfect 6-0 at home in the playoffs, fed off a crowd that refused to quit.

“I think we’re a confident team,” said Josi. “Nobody panicked.”

PREDS’ POILE UP FOR GM AWARD

It’s the trade that keeps on giving.

Nearly a year after David Poile shocked the hockey world by acquiring P.K. Subban from the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for Shea Weber, the Nashville Predators GM was named a finalist — along with Edmonton’s Peter Chiarelli and Ottawa’s Pierre Dorion — for the NHL general manager of the year award.

It was the fourth time Poile, whose Predators reached the conference final for the first time in franchise history, was recognized for the award.

But it wasn’t the first time that Poile has taken a chance at shaking up his line-up.

A year earlier, he traded defenceman Seth Jones (a fourth-overall pick in 2014) to Columbus for centre Ryan Johansen, who led the Predators with 61 points. The Subban deal has worked out just as well, with the defenceman scoring 10 goals and 40 points in 66 games this season, while assuming a shutdown role in the playoffs.

“I think P.K. has had a terrific year,” Predators head coach Peter Laviolette said earlier in the series. “He’s a terrific player, and I think he’s just worked on fitting inside of the concept of how we want to play as a team.”